Portland will be a port of call for weekly container ship service that will begin this spring on the Atlantic coast, a startup shipping company announced Tuesday.

New York-based American Feeder Lines plans to connect a string of ports from Portland to Miami, and possibly along the Gulf Coast to Texas, with container ships along a proposed marine highway.

The plan calls for a hub-and-spoke network, in which imported cargo from large container vessels moves to smaller ports on a fleet of feeder ships. For exports, the smaller ships would feed the big vessels. Cargo also could move between domestic ports.

So-called short-sea container service is common in other countries but has had difficulty getting a foothold in the United States, where it competes with truck and rail freight.

It’s getting a boost from a federal effort — the Marine Highway Program – aimed at reducing air pollution and truck traffic by moving freight off highways and onto nearby marine corridors.

Portland would be on the first leg of the new venture, part of a connection between Boston and Halifax, Nova Scotia. The service would be called the New England-Halifax Shuttle. The company still is considering a charter agreement with a ship to call on Portland. It says the vessel would have the capacity to carry about 550 standard 40-foot-long containers.

American Feeder Lines plans to build 10 small container ships in U.S. shipyards, to comply with federal laws for domestic shipping. It is still working to secure financing for the first ship, which would take two years to build.

The company could begin Boston-Portland-Halifax service this year by chartering a foreign-flagged vessel. That’s a way to enter a market that has pent-up demand and attract financing for construction, said John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority.

“They’re trying to establish their credentials, and this allows them to get into the market early,” Henshaw said. “They’re anxious to get up and running, and this is sort of a steppingstone.”

The planned service is good news for Portland’s International Marine Terminal, which has had a hard time maintaining reliable service in recent years. It hasn’t had regular cargo ship service since September, when a barge that carried pulp to New York stopped calling. It lost weekly container service to Halifax in 2008 when the operator suspended operations.

Maine businesses, including a liquor distiller and a stove manufacturer, have used cargo ships, Henshaw said, and L.L. Bean has expressed interest in importing products by sea. But he said the greatest potential export traffic is from the state’s pulp and paper industry, which now trucks much of its product to Boston or New York.

American Feeder Lines is trying to set up feeder and domestic freight service on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts that would support international container lines. Its concept would complement the introduction of a new fleet of massive ships that are designed to traverse the widened Panama Canal, the company says.

The company is familiar with Portland because Rudy Mack, its chief operating officer, ran a similar service in New England during the 1980s with the Hapag-Lloyd shipping company.

He is aware that Maine papermakers are trucking product to New York and New Jersey for export instead of shipping through Halifax, which is home to 15 major shipping lines.

Mack said he expects the route to grow slowly, as some shippers wait to see whether the company can provide reliable service. It will take time to build credibility, he said.

To succeed over the long term, the company must gain traffic and raise money to build its fleet of container ships in the United States. The vessels it plans to build would be especially fuel-efficient, running on low-sulfur fuel and biodiesel, and would limit emissions associated with climate change.

To move the same amount of freight, they would produce 27 percent less carbon dioxide per mile than rail, and 77 percent less than trucking, according to the company’s calculations.

American Feeder Lines’ announcement was welcomed by Jack Humeniuk, who represents the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 861 in Portland. His members are largely idle during the winter. The new service would put as many as 20 people to work every week, unloading cargo and operating the terminal.

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: [email protected]