Portland mayor urges lawmakers to leave Portland Harbor dredging allocation alone

Jan. 25—Portland Mayor Kate Snyder on Wednesday urged a legislative committee to let the city keep $10 million allocated last year to help pay for dredging along the Portland Harbor waterfront rather than diverting the money to other uses as proposed in Gov. Janet Mills' biennial budget for fiscal year 2024-25.

Last year's $10 million state allocation, from American Rescue Plan money, is a key part of the funding picture for the project, which calls for dredging around wharves, piers and marinas where silt has built up and reduced water depth and usable berthing space.

"The City of Portland urges you not to re-allocate the $10 million originally allocated for these purposes, which are vital to not just the City of Portland's economic future, but also the region and state," Snyder said.

Mills' budget proposal calls for reallocating the funds to the Small Business Health Insurance Premium Relief Program, a spokesman for the governor's office said. The program helps small businesses offer affordable health insurance to employees, critical to recruiting and retaining workers as Maine recovers from the pandemic, according to the governor. As of November 2022, the program had benefitted 5,753 small businesses and more than 46,000 residents.

Portland, South Portland and the Portland Harbor Commission announced days ago that they plan to apply for $10 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation's RAISE (Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity) program to eliminate a funding gap in the dredging project.

That money would have completed funding for the estimated $32 million dredging project, Bill Needelman, waterfront coordinator for the city of Portland, said this week.

But Needleman said Wednesday that the RAISE application might have to be revised if the state reallocates the $10 million in state funding, which was part of $22 million already raised for the project. The two cities have applied for federal funding for the dredging project three times in the past and been turned down each time.

"If the funds are reallocated by the state, then it makes the hole we are in all that much deeper," Needleman said Wednesday. "But it is not going away."

Needleman said the cities will forge ahead with their application and adjust their funding request if needed.

Snyder told members of the Joint Standing Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs that the dredging project will benefit Portland Harbor's working waterfront and the businesses that rely on the harbor. Extensive buildup of contaminated sediment has already cut off 26% of usable waterfront access in the central harbor and boat access to parts of some piers.

Snyder said the dredging will benefit 30 private commercial properties that support dozens of businesses, hundreds of jobs, thousands of vessels and millions of dollars in annual economic activity for decades to come. 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.

"This project would see Portland Harbor dredged for the first time in over 70 years to protect the berthing that waterfront industries need to operate," Snyder testified. "Dredging will stabilize losses and expand the potential of the harbor for fisheries, tourism, aquaculture and emerging opportunities in the local, regional and state 'Blue Economy.' "