Low tide along the Portland waterfront looking toward Portland Pier from Custom Wharf. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A coalition seeking federal funding to dredge Portland Harbor got bad news this month when its application was once again rejected by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The cities of Portland and South Portland, the Portland Harbor Commission and the Maine Department of Transportation have raised $24 million for the project, which has been in the works for years. The aim is to remove built-up silt and sediment around piers and marinas that has reduced water depth and berthing space.

The coalition was hoping to secure the last $8 million it needed through the DOT’s Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant program, but found out earlier this month that the dredging wasn’t among the 166 projects selected nationwide.

“Portland Harbor is an economic anchor both for the city and throughout southern Maine,” said Bill Needelman, waterfront coordinator for the city of Portland, the lead project sponsor. “If we can’t serve vessels, we’re no longer a functioning harbor. Water depth is necessary to maintain a working waterfront and maintain the kinds of economic opportunities we’ve seen in the past and that we hope to continue to see in the future.”

This is the third time the coalition’s RAISE application has been rejected. Last year it asked for $24 million for the $32 million project. This time, after getting $6 million more in local and state money, it asked for $18 million. Then the project received $10 million in state American Rescue Plan Act funding, but that came after the RAISE application was submitted.

The $32 million is meant to cover design, dredging, removal of contaminated sediment and construction of a contained aquatic disposal (CAD) cell to seal off and hold contaminated material in the harbor in Portland and South Portland.


Sedimentation builds up because of the natural process of silt and sand flowing from rivers into the bay – or from storms like the one that ripped through Portland and Casco Bay last week that wash dirt and debris into the harbor. Human activity like construction and the use of sand on roads can also add to the buildup.

According to the RAISE application, extensive buildup of contaminated sediment has already cut off 26 percent of usable waterfront access in the central harbor and boat access to parts of some piers. The sediment contains stormwater pollutants and “legacy contaminants,” including heavy metals and pesticides from former industries in the area.

About 47 percent of all harbor berthing, excluding bulk and breakbulk freight terminals, currently requires dredging, according to the application.

If the dredging isn’t done, the application goes on to say, it could negatively impact Casco Bay islands as well, which rely on the harbor for goods, services and transportation.

“Without fully operational berthing space and vessel support facilities, these services are at risk of operational failures, which will create more expensive day-to-day living and critical delays during times of emergencies,” the application says.

The boat launch at East End Beach in Portland at low tide on Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Those working on the project say they haven’t yet heard from the DOT why they didn’t get funding this year, but the grant program is highly competitive. The RAISE program received applications asking for a total of $13 billion in projects and funded $2.2 billion, according to the department’s press office. 


Two projects in Maine – $25 million to revitalize downtown Sanford and $24.6 million to replace part of an Interstate 95 interchange in Bangor – were among the program’s recipients.

Dan Haley, chair of the Board of Portland Harbor Commissioners, said last year the DOT advised the coalition to tweak a few aspects of its presentation. He said the group “pulled from everywhere we could pull” to find more funding before applying again.

Now they’ll look elsewhere for the rest of the money they need, he said.

“Normally this is the way you would go and this is the way the state gets road and bridge funding, through the U.S. DOT,” Haley said. “But I’ll take it from anybody.”

It’s not just the buildup of sediment that makes the need pressing. Permits for the project also have deadlines.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ permit for the CAD cell requires that transport and open-water disposal of dredged material to create the cell be completed by March 2024.


“If funding is further delayed, we will have to look at extending that,” Needelman said.

Federal and state officials say they are looking into other funding possibilities. U.S. Sen. Angus King’s office mentioned another DOT grant program, INFRA, the DOT’s Port Infrastructure Development Program or funding through the Economic Development Administration.

Annie Clark, a spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, said Maine received $2.4 billion in federal funding last year through a bipartisan bill that Collins co-authored. The money, she said, can be used for infrastructure projects across the state.

Paul Merrill, a Maine DOT spokesperson, said in an email Monday that money for a RAISE grant actually would have come from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and it’s not yet clear if the law makes other sources of funding available.

“The Maine Department of Transportation has dedicated $6 million in funding towards the dredging project,” Merrill said in an email. “The department will work with other partners to determine potential next steps.”

Victoria Bonney, a spokesperson for Rep. Chellie Pingree, said her office is also looking into funding sources. “This is an extremely important project and would enable a number of working waterfront businesses to expand and prosper,” Bonney said in an email.

Members of the coalition behind the project said it’s not a matter of if the dredging will get done, but when and how.

“The team working on this has done a good job articulating the problem and bringing a sense of urgency,” said Josh Reny, South Portland’s assistant city manager, in an email. “Our view is that the only way we’ll be able to get this done is with collaboration and resources contributed from federal, state and local levels of government along with private sector and pier owners. There’s certainly a compelling public interest in preserving the working waterfront as an economic driver.”

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