PORTLAND – With construction of a cruise ship “mega-berth” set to begin in Portland Harbor in a month or so, critics are arguing that the current design will limit its potential to boost economic development.

The deep-water berth, to be built off the end of the Ocean Gateway pier, will have a floating platform for cruise ship passengers. The platform — essentially a barge with a gangway — won’t be big enough to support vehicles larger than a golf cart.

State officials say they don’t have enough money to build a fixed pier, but a floating pier will do the job. They say the floating pier can be retrofitted as a fixed pier later, when more money becomes available.

The plan’s critics say a fixed pier could serve as a berth for tankers and other ships during repair projects and would allow contractors and vendors to bring supplies and services to the sides of ships.

Bruce Yates Jr., president of the Portland chapter of the Propeller Club, a professional organization that advocates for deep-water commerce, said in a letter this week to Gov. John Baldacci that the lack of access for trucks and cranes will frustrate efforts to sell fish and produce to ships and impede the ability of shipwrights to provide repair services.

John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority, said it makes more sense to invest in a fixed pier, which can be used year-round for multiple purposes, than in a floating pier that will be used only during the cruise ship season.

A floating pier will be an improvement but falls short of what the port needs, said Jack Humeniuk, business agent for the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 861.

“We are not getting the biggest bang for the buck I think we could,” he said.

But changes to the project at this stage would be difficult.

The Maine Department of Transportation awarded the construction contract last week to Reed & Reed of Woolwich, which submitted a bid of $4.88 million, edging out Prock Marine Co. of Rockland, which bid $4.93 million.

In June, voters statewide approved a bond package that included $6.5 million for the project. Baldacci originally planned to ask voters for $8 million but reduced his request during negotiations with the Legislature.

Because the winning bid came in below the estimate, Portland officials and the Department of Transportation must negotiate how to spend the savings, which exceed $1 million.

The money could be spent on other projects in the state, but city officials want it used to enhance the deep-water pier. One idea is to increase the width of the gangway so it could support smalls trucks and an ambulance, said city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.

The pier is expected to serve the new generation of cruise ships, many of them so large that it would be difficult to dock them at the Maine State Pier.

The current design includes a platform for passengers that’s a steel barge secured by piles. The 124-foot-long barge will be at the center of the berth, and passengers will walk on a long gangway to reach the fixed pier at the Ocean Gateway passenger terminal.

The rest of the 1,000-foot-long structure will be supported by pilings and three-piling clusters called “dolphins,” two of which were installed years ago to hold the Bath Iron Works dry dock. The dolphins will allow a ship as long as 1,200 feet to press against the berth and tie up to it.

The design was permitted in 2005 and was supposed to be built as part of the Ocean Gateway project, but it was never built because the money was spent on other parts of the project.

While the state has the right to suspend its contract with Reed & Reed, it would have to pay the company’s expenses. Officials at Reed & Reed say they have already begun ordering supplies. Construction is expected to begin at the end of this month or early in October. The contract calls for the project to be finished by July 15.

Supporters of a fixed pier say a new design could be permitted in six weeks and built for about $8.5 million, which is close to the amount that Baldacci originally supported. But Paul Pottle, the project manager for the state, said a fixed pier would cost as much as $12 million.

Pottle said the pilings for the floating pier could be used for a fixed pier when money becomes available. He said the barge would have good resale value.

In the meantime, a floating pier will make the city more attractive for cruise ship lines, he said.

“I know there is a lot of disappointment,” he said, “but I hope people don’t lose sight that this is an improvement. It may not be the best improvement that everybody wants, but it is a good step in the right direction.”

Floating piers have been used successfully for cruise ships in southeast Alaska, which has tidal ranges similar to Maine’s, said David Pierce, president of PND Engineers in Seattle, which helped design the floating berth system.

He said the floating piers rise and fall with the tides so they stay at the same level as ships.

Some ports in Alaska have floating piers that are big enough to support trucks, he said. If Maine officials widen the gangway on Portland’s mega-berth to allow for trucks, they probably will have to make the barge more substantial so it will be stable.

Pierce said a floating pier is a good step for Portland. “It will open the door for Portland to really get the super ships.”

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com