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

Portland, South Portland and the Portland Harbor Commission plan to again apply for millions in federal funding to help pay for dredging around wharves, piers and marinas where silt has built up and reduced water depth and usable berthing space for the boats that use them.

The group’s application, due Feb. 28, seeks $10 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s RAISE (Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity) program.

That money would complete the funding – $22 million has already been committed to the estimated $32 million project, said Bill Needelman, waterfront coordinator for the city of Portland.

The funding is highly competitive – the cities have been turned down three times, and only 166 projects nationally received funding last year. Needleman said the project has secured all of its needed environmental permits.

This year’s application is for less than the 2022 request, which sought $18 million from RAISE. Last year, the dredging coalition received $10 million from the state through its American Rescue Plan Act allocation before RAISE had made its final decision on the federal funding.

“We are disappointed that previous proposals have been unfunded,” Needleman said. “But we are undaunted because we don’t have a choice.”


Removing silt and sediment that has built up around piers, wharves, ramps and marinas is essential to the future of marine businesses in Portland and South Portland, Needleman said.

“It’s the piers, wharves and ramps that continue to degrade. It’s death by 1,000 cuts,” Needleman said, referring to places such as the Maine State Pier, the Fish Pier and the Casco Bay Lines ferry terminal. South Portland’s waterfront marinas are more recreation-based than Portland’s working waterfront, but still need to be cleaned up.

According to the 2022 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.

The dredging project will include design, dredging, removal of contaminated sediment and construction of a contained aquatic disposal (CAD) cell – essentially a deep hole in the harbor – to seal off and hold contaminated material. The CAD cell will sit below the mudline and fill in naturally, Needleman said.

Thomas Dobbins, a former member of the Portland Harbor Commission who now serves on the Portland Harbor Dredge Team, said the pressure is on to get the funding. Dobbins and others hope a newly created video will help drive home to federal officials how critical the dredging project is to the two cities.

“It’s a tough sell because you can’t see it. The land is underwater,” Dobbins said. Dobbins said the federal review team may never have visited Portland Harbor and may not fully understand the impact of the project on marine businesses.

The Greater Portland Council of Governments was hired by the group to make the video to accompany the 2023 application.

Tom Bell, the communications director for the council, is developing the video, which features drone footage of about 45 people standing on the mudflats near the U.S. Coast Guard station in South Portland at low tide. Several hold signs saying “Help Dig Us Out.” The video also features Parker Poole IV, who owns Determination Marine, a marine towing, salvage and recovery business in Portland. It is designed to demonstrate the broad community support for the dredging project.

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