The Maine Port Authority will request proposals from two tugboat companies to operate a hybrid tug-barge service between Portland and New York within the next two years.

Such service has been absent from Portland since 2009. The last barge service was a tug-and-tow operation that transported wood pulp to New York.

The request for proposals will go out within two weeks to two qualified bidders: McAllister Towing, which owns Portland Tugboat, and Foss Marine Holdings. The two were chosen from a field of four companies that sought to qualify to bid on the project.

The request for proposals coincides with other improvements in the port of Portland, such as a decision by Eimskip, an Icelandic shipping company, to move to Portland from Norfolk, Va., to cut its shipping time to northern Europe. Passenger ferry service between Nova Scotia and Portland could be revived. And the city already hosts a growing passenger cruise ship industry.

“This is a great opportunity for the city to become a cargo hub,” said Maine Port Authority Executive Director John Henshaw. “We have great passenger operations on the eastern hub and it would be a great benefit to the city to have a complementary cargo center on the western hub.”

The tug-barge service has been in development since 2010. McAllister Towing, based in New York, and Foss Marine Holdings, of Seattle, could not be reached for comment. The companies will have about 30 days to respond to the request for proposals.

In December, the port authority released a request for qualifications to identify potential private-sector partners for the container service. That same month, the port authority was awarded a $150,000 federal grant to pay for design work for a new hybrid tug-barge.

Such vessels, called articulated tug barges, are used in the petroleum industry for moving oil and gas. They have ship-like qualities that make them more stable in high seas than conventional tug-and-tow barges. A tug-barge is pushed by a boat secured at its stern.

The main competition for the tug-barge would be the trucking industry, Henshaw said.

To reduce costs to the operator — and lower shipping rates — the port authority envisions a public entity owning and building the barge section of the vessel. The operating company would design and build the tug portion.

Henshaw said talks continue with a public entity, which could include the Maine Port Authority or the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and no decision has been reached.

The hybrid barge could be operated with about six people, rather than the 15 to 20 needed on a container ship. The vessel would cost $20 million to $50 million to build, less than the $70 million to $125 million for a traditional container ship.

Because the barge would travel between two U.S. ports, the vessel must be built in the U.S. and use a U.S. crew.

While the tug-barge service would mean jobs for the crew and some longshoremen to unload the vessel, the real benefit would be additional cargo going through Portland at a competitive cost, Henshsaw said.

“It could lessen transportation costs for businesses. And with improved transportation logistics, I can definitely foresee other businesses emerging, such as distribution and warehousing-type companies,” Henshaw said.

Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

[email protected]