Maine was once a major player in maritime commerce, building ships, shipping resources, and competing with Boston and Halifax for dominance in the trans-Atlantic trade. Now our ports count themselves lucky if they still shelter an inshore fishing fleet.

The decline has been a century in the making, with places like Portland losing their markets as icebreakers opened the St. Lawrence to winter traffic and Canadian government investments gave the ports of Saint John and Halifax better infrastructure. Recent months have seen further setbacks, as the New Jersey-based company that provided scheduled barge-and-tug container service to Portland permanently discontinued its New England operations.

But Maine’s three surviving shipping ports-Portland, Searsport, and Eastport-are about to receive long overdue state and federal investments: $14 million in federal stimulus grants and another $5.5 million gift from Maine taxpayers as part of the transportation bond they approved at the ballot box last November.

Nobody knows for certain if the investments will make a difference: the hope is that if the ports become more efficient at moving cargo, they’ll look more attractive to industrial customers who presently move goods in and out of Maine by truck or rail, often to out of state ports where they are loaded onto ocean-going ships. New industries might be attracted as well, proponents note, particularly those that might tap into Maine’s resources like wind or forest products.

“The whole idea is to invest in the core competencies in each port,” says John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority, the state entity that applied for the federal grants. “My whole objective is to figure out what the ports do best, and I think each has their own niche.”

Portland’s privately-owned oil and bulk goods terminals are doing fine on their own, but the state’s only container port-the city-owned International Marine Terminal (IMT) -has been struggling. In the late 1990s, city officials successfully argued that the international passenger ferry operations had to be moved out of IMT to make way for a doubling of container traffic by 2008. But as I’ve previously reported, average annual container traffic actually fell.

In recent years, IMT’s container ops have been almost entirely dependent on a single customer-the paper mill in Old Town-and it has been frequently idled in tandem with the mill’s fortunes. Potential importers like L.L. Bean or Reny’s have noted that barge service has remained uncompetitive with trucks and trans-continental rail. (L.L. Bean, for instance, lands their Asian manufactures on the West Coast, then picks them up at a rail yard in Auburn.) Occasional shipments of wind turbine parts-“special cargoes” in industry parlance-have been the only bright spot.

Mr. Henshaw hopes to revive IMT by knocking down part of the old passenger terminal (which blocks efficient unloading of “special cargoes”) and strengthening the former parking areas so as to be able to support loaded containers. Containers and large bulky objects like turbine blades will be moved and stored more easily.  “The idea is to be able to move the maximum number of containers in the minimum amount of time,” he notes.

It is hoped that the investments-funded by a $5 million grant from the federal Department of Transportation-will help attract more wind turbine shipments and a new scheduled freighter service to either Halifax or New York. The Port Authority’s current marketing plan foresees transporting more than 6,000 forty-foot containers a year through IMT, roughly triple the thirteen year running average of just over 2,000. (It also provides a piece of information the City of Portland previously failed to provide: the facility’s annual operating costs are $211,000, or roughly the equivalent of the revenue from 6000 containers.)

In a development unreported by Maine’s press, Columbia Coastal Transport of Liberty Corner, N.J. terminated their barge service to Portland and Boston in late August. The Journal of Commerce reported increased competition from ocean going ships in Boston had left the service dependent on pulp exports from Portland, but that their Maine clients announced in early August that “the bottom had dropped out of the market.”

Like Portland, Eastport has long depended on pulp shipments from a single paper mill, in this case the one in Baileyville. The port-a non-profit corporation owned by the people of Eastport-is deploying an advanced conveyor belt system that can move pulp and other bulk cargoes to and from any point in the freight yard, reducing costs to shippers. The port pooled resources to buy the modular conveyor: $1 million of its own money, $2 million from the federal grant, and $4.5 million from the state bond.

“The only way to get into a large volume, low value cargo market is to handle the commodities quickly and efficiently,” says the port’s executive director, Chris Gardner, who says the new equipment could open new opportunities in Washington County’s forest products sector. “This is the last place on the East Coast where the forest touches the sea. We see a big market not just for [hardwood] pulp, but for softwood pellets or chips as well.”

In a separate development, Eastport has also started shipping live dairy cows-animals in high demand in Turkey-and is well on its way to securing a rare federal designation to continue doing so (see “From Eastport to Turkey, with love” September, 2010). Meanwhile the Baileyville mill was sold last month to the Hong Kong-based International Grand Investment Corporation, a development expected to stabilize the mill. Earlier this year, the firm purchased a troubled pulp mill in Oregon owned by a bankrupted firm originally founded by Downeast Mainers, Pope & Talbot.

Searsport’s niche-bulk and special cargoes-is to be enhanced by the purchase of a large mobile harbor crane, which the Maine Port Authority claims will “give the facility a competitive edge over its Canadian counterpart in Halifax and Saint John, Canada.” The federal grant application mentions a possible opportunity to import pig iron from Eastern Europe and Brazil on behalf of steel manufacturers in the Midwestern U.S. Mr. Henshaw says that’s just one possibility in an effort to diversify cargoes and increase the port’s capacity. The total cost of the investment in Searsport: $7 million in federal grants.

Colin Woodard is an award-winning journalist and author of three books including The Lobster Coast.