Portland’s waterfront, as seen from South Portland, glows in the late-day sunshine Thursday. The Maine Legislature’s budget-writing committee voted unanimously Thursday to restore $10 million in funding for dredging along Portland Harbor. Gov. Janet Mills had proposed reallocating that funding. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Legislature’s budget writing committee voted unanimously Thursday to restore $10 million in funding for a long-awaited dredging project to protect waterfront access in Portland Harbor.

In a supplemental budget proposal, Gov. Janet Mills had proposed reallocating the federal funding to a program that helps small businesses afford health care for their workers.

Her proposal to shift the funding prompted Portland officials and people who rely on the working waterfront to rally support for the dredging project during a hearing last week before the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, which has the power to review and change the governor’s budget proposal. The money would help pay for the removal of sediment that has piled up around commercial piers and marinas over the last 70 years, preventing vessels from reaching berths and limiting access to the waterfront.

The committee’s unanimous vote Thursday is a first step that indicates bipartisan support for the project. Once the rest of the proposed budget is approved by the committee, it will face votes in the full Legislature before being sent to Mills for her signature.

Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, who serves on the committee, said restoring the $10 million in dredging money would give Portland, South Portland and waterfront stakeholders more time to cobble together the rest of the funding for the estimated $32 million project.

Millett said the budget still contains $6.5 million in additional funding for the small-business health insurance program, extending it through July 31, or later if additional funding is available.


“We are … recognizing the importance of the Port of Portland to both economic development and commerce,” Millett said. “We’re giving them the opportunity to pull together a plan to address the issue in a proper and legitimate way.

“I think what we’re doing in this amendment is acceptable from our perspective and gives a good message not only to our colleagues upstairs but to the general community in the Greater Portland area.”

A spokesperson for the governor said her proposal to remove the $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding stemmed from the fact that the project has applied unsuccessfully three times for the additional federal funding needed to the complete the project.

Ben Goodman said the governor believes the money would be better spent on reducing health care costs for small businesses and their employees. The program, which through November 2022 had benefited about 5,750 small businesses and about 46,130 Maine residents, is set to expire on April 30 and the additional funding would have maintained it through December.

“If the Legislature believes it is more appropriate to hold onto the $10 million for an indeterminate amount of time, then the governor very much hopes that this next federal application is successful and that the full amount of funding is secured to move the project forward as soon as possible,” Goodman said.

Under the program, health insurers receive financial assistance to reduce premiums for their small-business customers by $50 per covered employee per month, $80 for one adult and a child, $100 for two adults, and $130 for two adults and one or more children, he said. Employers split these payments with their workers, he said.


Bill Needelman, Portland’s waterfront coordinator, told the committee last week that the funding was part of $22 million already raised for the project. That funding was built into an application for the remaining $10 million that the city plans to seek from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s RAISE (Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity).

The dredging project is seen as vital to preserving the city’s working waterfront, which includes commercial fishing, international container shipping and recreational boating. City officials say the project would benefit 30 waterfront properties that support dozens of businesses, hundreds of jobs, thousands of vessels and millions of dollars in annual economic activity for decades to come.

City officials say that the build up of contaminated sediment has reduced water depth and eliminated 26% of usable waterfront and pier access. The sediment is caused by sand and silt entering the harbor during heavy rainstorms. Officials hope to dredge up that contaminated sediment and place it in a contained aquatic disposal cell in the harbor.

A July 2020 economic assessment of Portland Harbor, paid for by Portland and South Portland, estimated that marine and non-marine businesses contribute more than $1 billion to the local economy.

Mayor Kate Snyder applauded the unanimous decision. She previously told the committee that it would be the first dredging project in 70 years.

“I’m incredibly grateful to Portland’s legislative delegation, who have been working nonstop to preserve the funding since we learned of the possible reallocation last week,” Snyder said on Thursday.

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