A new mobile harbor crane being installed at the International Marine Terminal in Portland is the capstone of a $15.5 million project to expand capacity and improve efficiency at the state’s sole shipping container facility.

The new crane joins another installed more than two years ago. The Liebherr cranes can lift 124 tons and are meant to speed loading and unloading of cargo containers.

The volume of container traffic through Portland has surged in recent years as Icelandic shipping company Eimskip boosted the size and frequency of its trips to the city.

“The goal is to have both cranes working the same vessel, which will dramatically increase productivity and turn that vessel around really quickly,” said Maine Port Authority CEO Jon Nass.

The Maine Department of Transportation received a $7.7 million federal grant in 2016 that helped pay for improvements intended to double the capacity at the container terminal.

Alongside the two new cranes, which cost more than $5 million apiece, the funding was used to remove a maintenance building near the waterfront to free up space to load and unload containers, and construct a new operations building to replace it.

The Port Authority invested in the terminal in anticipation of Eimskip’s increased stops with larger ships, and it hopes other shipping companies will take advantage of the improvements as well, Nass said.

“That has always been our strategy, to invest into the growth,” he said. “As predicted, we did see volume grow – because of the grant we have a terminal that can handle significantly more than we could in 2015.”

The terminal received another $4 million grant last year to further improve services. Funding will be used to rehab a refrigerated container yard, build a new dry warehouse, and improve gates and electrical connections.

Overall container volume increased by 2 percent last year, even amid the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. But refrigerated cargo surged from 30 percent of the pre-pandemic total to about 50 percent now because of demand for frozen food, medicine and other products, Nass said. The terminal needs to update electrical systems to deal with the increase in refrigerated containers, he added.

The Port Authority is moving ahead with plans to build a $30 million cold storage warehouse at the terminal. The development was approved by the Portland Planning Board last year, and officials are working on permitting, financial and legal details, and building design, Nass said. There is no anticipated groundbreaking date for the building.

West End residents have opposed the project, arguing it is too large and will increase traffic and noise on Commercial Street.

“We are moving the ball forward,” Nass said. “One of the interesting things about the COVID-19 pandemic is that it is really reinforcing the business model and the demand for cold storage.”

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