Maine’s only container port is busier than ever and running smoothly despite last year’s economic downturn and supply chain disruptions that have caused backups in harbors nationwide.
At least 36,700 shipping containers are expected to cross the docks at the International Marine Terminal in Portland this year. That’s five times the number of containers that came through the port in 2013, when the Icelandic shipping company Eimskip opened its headquarters in Portland.
The number of containers coming through Portland has increased by 23 percent a year on average since Maine started investing tens of millions of dollars to modernize and expand the terminal more than a decade ago. The volume of containers moving through the port has more than doubled since 2017.
Eimskip, the port’s only container company, intends to grow trade further by increasing the size of vessels that ply its Transatlantic Green Line service. The company’s ships call on Portland once a week, the end of a line that includes stops in Atlantic Canada and Iceland, and connections to northern Europe and Asia.
“(There) has been incredible growth and support,” said Andrew Haines, executive vice president of Eimskip’s North America division.
In his decades in the shipping industry, Haines cannot recall the renovation and subsequent growth of any other U.S. port in the way it has happened in Portland.
“It doesn’t happen,” Haines said. “We came here with a vision and mission that was shared by the state. It has exceeded all expectations throughout the organization.”
Eimskip is on track to have its best year ever in Portland after a lackluster showing during the pandemic-triggered economic downturn in 2020.
As the end of 2021 approaches, the company has picked up more customers and expanded business with existing clients, Haines said. Eimskip and the International Marine Terminal have avoided the backlogs plaguing major U.S. ports, which has worked to its advantage.
Eimskip operates its own containers and trailers, so it can turn around shipments quickly and dependably, drawing in more business from clients getting blocked at bigger container ports, Haines said. These days, the company turns around 125 containers a day, almost four times what it did when it moved to Portland.
“We don’t have the same problems other ports do, and we have a wonderful network of Maine- and Massachusetts-based truckers,” he said. “I am not saying we are not busy and do not have challenges, but we have not had the delays the other ports have had on East and West coasts.”
LARGER SHIPS TO MEET DEMAND
Eimskip currently has one ship that can hold 740 containers, and two others that can carry 925 containers each, calling on Portland. The company plans to replace all three vessels with bigger ships that can hold up to 1,100 containers to handle projected growth, Haines said.
“It is planned (for) as soon as possible – we are currently looking at the market and working on the process to bring those bigger vessels in as soon as we have availability,” he said.
The container terminal’s transformation – from an empty space the city once used to store snow from city streets to a hive of activity – is stunning, said Patrick Arnold, owner of Soli DG, the company contracted to operate the port.
Year-over-year growth has far outpaced the global average of about 5 percent, Arnold said.
“Our view is that while the growth we keep experiencing seems unprecedented, it is very likely and possible that it could continue,” he said.
There is no risk that the terminal will run out of space soon, but it is prepared for that eventuality, Arnold said. A rail connection to the container yard, part of a multiyear investment program at the terminal, would offer another way to keep cargo moving once the yard becomes congested, he added.
Maine has poured tens of millions of dollars into expanding the terminal, including adding new cranes. Arnold said further business growth will require additional development such as a planned cold-storage warehouse, seen as critical to maintain Eimskip’s market niche in refrigerated cargo.
“We are experiencing rapid growth, and that means we have to constantly keep up – that is the only challenge,” he said.
The value of goods imported and exported through Portland has surged along with the increase in container traffic.
Last year, commodities and finished good and materials worth $882 million crossed the docks, a 75 percent increase from just four years before.
Imports accounted for about 70 percent of value coming through Portland’s harbor last year. Frozen fish, taking advantage of Eimskip’s refrigerated container focus, is by far the most imported material by value, but top imports also include machinery, apparel, beverages, minerals and metals.
EXPORTS ALSO GROWING
Even though imports have dominated port shipments, U.S. exports have grown substantially. Exports through the port were valued at $269 million last year, more than twice the total export value in 2017.
Ammunition cartridges, prepared fruits and vegetables, wooden medical instruments, industrial and electric machinery, and pulp and paperboard were some of the most valuable materials exported.
Not everything exported from Portland is produced in Maine, but a growing port is good news for companies in the state engaged in European trade, said Wade Merritt, executive director of the Maine International Trade Center.
Up to 70 percent of Maine’s exports leave the state by road bound for aircraft in New Jersey and New York, Merritt said. That is partly because lobster – shipped live by air – accounts for a huge amount of Maine exports’ value.
But access to trade infrastructure plays a role, too. Before the International Marine Terminal was renovated, Maine exporters just didn’t have an option in the state, Merritt said. Now that the terminal is a bustling port, companies have options closer to home.
“There was no other way to get out – you had to use the bigger hubs,” he said. “Having a modern container facility with access to the European market means companies that have connections to Europe are looking that way and using the service. Out-of-state freight allows for critical mass that makes the next level of investment make sense.”