Portland port officials optimistic in face of shipping loss

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PORTLAND — Port officials and legislators are optimistic, despite the city’s latest break-up with a maritime shipper.

On May 4, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, joined Maine Port Authority Executive Director John Henshaw and U.S. Maritime Administrator David Matsuda at the International Marine Terminal on Commercial Street, where shipping operations were shut down just days before.

American Feeder Lines, a New York-based container shipping company, announced earlier in the week that it would suspend, and then terminate, service between Boston, Portland, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. The pull-out is the latest in a string of failed shipping operations in the city stretching back decades.

The company cited a lack of business.

But on Friday, Pingree said “we’ve proven that there is a customer base that wants to ship container cargo in and out of Portland.”

A day before, Henshaw said that while customers were slower to sign up with the service than anticipated – and both AFL and the Port Authority had planned on a slow ramp-up period when they began service in summer 2011 – the service’s customer base had experienced growth shortly before the service ended.

AFL had at least eight clients in Portland, including four importers, three clients that represented a total of six Maine paper mills, and a scrap metal exporter.

Henshaw said that the port, which is in the midst of a $5 million expansion, hopes to find a new service provider for the Maine-Halifax route.

But last week, the officials focused not on shipping to Canada, but on a plan to utilize the recently named maritime highway between the state and New York and New Jersey.

New York is a bigger port than Halifax, but domestic shipping requires that the vessels be American-flagged and crewed by Americans, making it a more expensive proposition.

Henshaw, Pingree, and Matsuda discussed a tentative plan to lure shipping companies to the port with the idea of pioneering the use of a new type of vessel known as an articulated tug barge. The crafts, which feature a push-tugboat connected to a container-carrying barge, would be more appropriately sized to Portland’s shipping needs, Henshaw said, and would cost less to operate than full-sized cargo ships like the ones AFL had chartered.

They would also be able to operate more regularly than simple barges, being less susceptible to rough seas. “The big advantage is the consistency of scheduling,” said Bruce Doughty, president of East Boothbay shipbuilder Washburn & Doughty, adding that a tug barge can weather all but the roughest storms.

The catch, Henshaw said, is that no one makes container-carrying ATBs. The Port Authority has a partial design that it promoted unsuccessfully to the U.S. Navy during a project to design vessels that could be used for both military and commercial purposes, he said.

Aside from convincing skeptical shippers to use Portland, “I think that the New York-based service is on it’s own separate track,” Henshaw said. “It has it’s own challenges.”

“I think they would have to see the numbers,” Doughty said. But, he said, there is growing interest in using ATBs for purposes like transporting garbage out of New York City, and similar crafts are used to transport oil and grain. “Someone’s got to break the ice,” he said.

Whether the port will overcome those challenges, or if the city nets the $52,000 it expected to get from its revenue-based lease agreement with the Port Authority in 2013, remains to be seen.

“We believe there are lots of opportunities here,” Pingree said.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.

From left, U.S. Maritime administator David Matsuda, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, and Maine Port Authority director John Henshaw discus operations at Portland’s International Marine Terminal on Friday. American Feeder Lines, a shipping company running between Portland and Halifax, terminated its service last week.

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U.S. Maritime Administrator David Matsuda, left, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and Maine Port Authority Director John Henshaw discuss operations at the International Maritime Terminal in Portland on May 4. They were optimistic about the future of cargo shipping despite the termination just days before of service to the city from Halifax, Nova Scotia, by American Feeder Lines.