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Portland, South Portland try again to secure federal funds for waterfront dredging

The cities of Portland and South Portland will again apply for federal transportation funds to help pay for a proposed dredging project.

The two cities are looking for about $10 million, the last of the funds needed to move forward with waterfront dredging.

Many Portland harbor piers, marinas and ramps haven't been dredged in about 70 years. Sand and silt has built up over time, lowering water depths and available berthing for boats that use the waterfront. Bill Needelman, waterfront coordinator for the city of Portland, said most piers can still support commercial fishing, lobstering and tourism.

But he said the sediment build-up has cut off 26% of central waterfront access.

"It is an existential problem for Portland Harbor," he said. "If we can't bring boats up alongside our piers and wharfs and marinas, we are out of business. And that's not an option."

Dan Haley, chairman of the Portland Harbor Commission, said emergency and city vehicles often can't use the commercial barge that comes in near East End Beach to access the Casco Bay islands.

"They cannot use it 24/7, because there's not enough water for the barge to come in and reach the shore for 24 hours a day," he said. "In the low tides there could be four hours where they can't do anything. If there were an emergency on the islands, the barge can't really help with that."

The cities want to dredge areas around the piers and wharves and remove sediment, which has been polluted over time from storm run-off, as well as industries and shipyards that have long left the waterfront. The plans call for the construction of a contained cell that would dispose and sequester contaminated sediment.

This is the fourth time that the cities have applied for a Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant. This time the Portland Harbor Dredge Team is creating a video to submit with its application, which Haley said should better illustrate the scope of the problem and its impact on those who use the waterfront.

"With the video, hopefully the old expression, a picture is worth a thousand words... hopefully it'll be worth 10-million dollars in this case if we're successful in obtaining the RAISE grant," he said.

The Portland Harbor Dredge Team said it's secured about $22 million so far for the project, which includes contributions from both cities, private pier owners and state transportation and pandemic emergency funds.

If the team succeeds and wins the federal grant, Needelman said the cities will create a final design plans based on the project's permits, which have already been secured. Construction and the dredging itself could take until 2028 or 2029, he added.

Needelman said he believes the team will succeed this time in securing the remaining funds. But if they don't, the cities will look for funding elsewhere or try again next time.