The loss of the nascent container-ship line in Portland's harbor last week was not just a blow to the city's desired reputation as a shipping hub — but also to the environment. After less than a year in operation, American Feeder Lines announced on May 1 that it was closing down shop at the International Marine Terminal on Commercial Street. This leaves the Maine Port Authority, which is currently in the middle of a multi-million-dollar expansion, without an anchor shipping service to justify its existence. And the goods that were being shipped by sea will go back to being transported via truck or train, which means increased emissions and more wear and tear on America's crumbling highways and bridges.
American Feeder Lines came in last summer to transport goods in a loop between Halifax, Portland, and Boston. The New York-based company had the eventual goal of hooking up ports along the East and Gulf coasts as part of the US Department of Transportation's American Marine Highway Program — officially launched in 2010, on "routes where water transportation presents an opportunity to offer relief to landside corridors that suffer from traffic congestion, excessive air emissions or other environmental concerns and other challenges," according to the DOT's Marine Administration website.
But despite millions in investments (including a $200,000 loan from the Maine Port Authority, which that entity is seeking to recoup) and only nine months in operation, AFL couldn't make it work.
"The volume we expected did not come through," said Rudy Mack, AFL's chief operating officer.
And there were other problems. In order for AFL to expand its service to run between Portland and New York, it had to apply for a waiver from the federal Jones Act, which requires that ships traveling solely between US ports be US-flagged, US-crewed, and made in the United States. The current fleet of Jones Act-approved ships is small, and old, Mack says, suggesting that Washington officials should consider loosening the act's requirements at least until new vessels can be built. AFL proposed using foreign-built ships with American crews on board (while US-flag vessels were being constructed); now that they've ceased operations, the proposal is moot.
The announcement is already causing a ripple effect. Consider White Rock Distilleries, which previously used the AFL service to ship imported grain alcohol from Halifax to Portland. The company will now have to ship tanks from Nova Scotia to Boston's Conley Terminal, then truck them back up to its facility in Lewiston — a costlier and less convenient alternative, according to Harold Jones, traffic manager for the company.
However, AFL's demise "will not be the end of freight moving through this shipyard," says John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority. "We are continuing to pursue another operator for the Halifax service." He also believes there is enough cargo volume in Maine to support a Portland-New York route.
To that end, Henshaw was joined at a press conference on Friday by US Representative Chellie Pingree, US Maritime Administrator David Matsuda, and Portland mayor Michael Brennan, at which they highlighted a new vessel design that would be perfectly suited for "short-sea" routes like those along the Eastern Seaboard. Pingree urged Matsuda to fund the completion of a design for an Articulated Tug Barge (ATB), a fuel-efficient, hybrid vessel that combines elements of tug-boats and barges, with a capacity of about 450 "20-foot equivalency units" (i.e., standard cargo containers).