In Brief: A proposed port in Maine could see major economic benefits in Saint John. AIMS acting president Charles Cirtwill notes that although ports in Halifax, Sydney and the Strait of Canso may see a new port as competition, projected container traffic from Asia will likely keep all the area’s ports busy.

by David Shipley

A potential US$200-million container port in Maine could be a benefit to the Port of Saint John, says the head of a Halifax-based think-tank.

The Maine Port Authority is considering a proposal to develop a shipping terminal capable of handling 375,000 20-foot equivalent (TEU) containers on Sears Island, located in Penobscot Bay near the town of Searsport.

The facility, which would be built as a public-private partnership, is intended to capturing the rising tide of containerized goods flowing to North America from Asian ports via the Suez Canal.

“For the Port of Saint John, this is kind of like manna from heaven,” said Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

From Saint John’s perspective, the ideal place for a major new gateway port is in the northeastern United States, Cirtwill said.

“All of the feeder traffic (that would) serve the Canadian market, the natural port of call (would be) Saint John as opposed to Halifax, Sydney or the Strait (of Canso),” he said Monday.

The idea of a port facility on Sears Island has been debated in Maine for decades.

Earlier this month, an American consulting firm contracted by the Maine Port Authority, filed a new report arguing that the state could receive significant economic benefits from a new container facility.

“A new port at Searsport will handle an additional 1.5 million ton of breakbulk cargo and 375,000 TEU containers in 2020, and this will create $5.7 million a year in state and local taxes and 2,200 new jobs,” states the report by The Cornell Group Inc. of Fairfax, Va.

“In addition, the economic impact resulting from port construction at Searsport and induced port-related activity will create $3.6 billion in public- and private-sector revenue, including $87 million in state and city taxes and 16,700 jobs in Maine.”

Cirtwill said a gateway port in the northeastern U.S. has two advantages over Atlantic Canadian ports.

“One is they’re on the other side of the U.S. border, so they don’t have to deal with (border) delays.” The second thing is “they’re closer to major (U.S.) marketplaces,” said Cirtwill.

The Sears Island project could be a competitor for Atlantic Canadian ports.

“With a world-class container facility at Searsport, Maine can capture Midwest (U.S.) cargo from competitor’s ports on the East Coast and from Canada,” the Cornell Group report argues.

Like the Sears Island proposal, the Atlantic Gateway strategy also aims to capture Asian cargo bound for the United States and Canada coming by ship via the Suez Canal.

The Port of Halifax and a new container facility on the mainland side of the Strait of Canso are poised to go after hundreds of thousands of containers.

The Port of Sydney is also trying to capture a slice of the projected surge in container traffic.

While the Sears Island report suggests it could be a competitor to Canadian ports, Cirtwill said there’s enough container cargo projected to hit the eastern coast of North America to support terminals in the Strait of Canso, Sydney, Halifax and Saint John – and Sears Island.

Capt. Al Soppitt, president and chief executive officer of the Saint John Port Authority, said Monday that, while he’s interested in new ways to grow the port’s container business, he’s focused on sustaining and growing existing container traffic.

Soppitt said ports in Atlantic Canada and the northeastern United States should make better use of existing capacity before new container ports are built.

John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority, said the state government supports attracting more container traffic. But construction on a new facility in Maine is at least five years away.

Under an agreement signed by state officials and industry and environmental groups, Sears Island is to be divided between a 600-acre conservation area and a 341-acre port.

Before a port on Sears Island can be built, a new study must be done on whether mainland facilities should be expanded instead.

“We’re going to have to do another feasibility study,” Henshaw said.