March 29, 2020

DOT mulls new pier > Proposals sought for Mack Point

SEARSPORT — Having rejected a plan to rebuild two privately owned piers at Mack Point, the state now wants to assist with the reconstruction of a single facility at the port.

As a way of promoting port development in the midcoast, the Department of Transportation is seeking written proposals from any parties interested in developing a project at Mack Point in partnership with the state.

“We just want letters of intent as to how they feel they can partner with us and what they want to bring to the table,” DOT port development official Brian Nutter said Tuesday.

The DOT views the joint venture as an opportunity to “provide an intermodal cargo facility that maximizes transportation cost savings, enhances competition in the transportation sector and creates transportation opportunities for Maine business and industry.” The letters of interest must be received at the DOT by 2 p.m. Monday, Feb. 9.

The state decided to develop a single pier after it was unable to reach an agreement with the owners of the two private piers.

The piers at Mack Point are owned by the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad, also known as Iron Road Railways, and Sprague Energy. The companies handle about 35 percent of the annual ocean-based cargo shipped to Maine.

The B&A pier handles dry cargo, while the Sprague pier is used to unload petroleum products, coal and salt. Both piers were built around the turn of the century and need to be modernized.

Mack Point is located about one-half mile across Searsport Harbor from Sears Island. The owners of the piers held off upgrading their facilities for decades because of the expected development of a modern pier on the 900-acre island. That plan was on the drawing board for 20 years when the $80 million Sears Island project was shelved in 1996. Sprague and the B&A were left trying to catch up with the competition with a pair of aging piers.

At that time the two firms decided to join forces. Early last year they put forth a proposal that focused on rebuilding each of their piers through a mixture of private and public financing.

Together, the two corporations own more than 160 acres around the Mack Point site. Their joint proposal carried an estimated price tag of $38 million, with the state providing $18 million and Sprague and the B&A the remaining $20 million.

The project was stymied last spring when supporters of the project were unable to convince the Legislature or Gov. Angus King to include Mack Point in last November’s transportation bond issue. The deal collapsed over political concerns about dedicating scarce public funds to a private, for-profit project.

With plans for a two-pier port project scuttled, the state has taken the position that a single modern pier is better than two that are on the way out. That decision has apparently placed the two former partners at odds over how to combine their opposite needs in one facility.

Ben Coes, director of external affairs for Iron Road Railways, declined to comment on his firm’s plans for its pier when contacted Tuesday afternoon. Attempts to reach a Sprague Energy spokesman were unsuccessful.

“Both companies have different ideas, and both have piers,” Nutter said. “They also have diverse interests and common interests. Both may want new piers, but we said `that is just not applicable.”‘

The state is prepared to assist in the financing of a new pier provided the developer involved agrees to a specific delineation of the roles of the public and private participants. He said DOT planners were convinced that a single modern pier at Mack Point is suitable to provide a competitive shipping and receiving point on the midcoast.

“We are prepared to offer financing and build a new pier with state funds while giving the operator the option to buy it back at a future date,” Nutter said. “To us, a new pier is a new pier. If we can build one, we can make better handling and better business for Maine. That is what we want.”

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