PORTLAND — A new way of shipping container freight along the East Coast is taking shape, at least on a drawing board, thanks to federal funds.

McAllister Towing and Transportation, a New York-based firm that builds and operates tugs and barges, has been awarded $150,000 in federal grant funds to design an articulated tug-barge that would be used between Portland and New York.

The design project follows a major development in national transportation policy, explained John Henshaw, director of the Maine Port Authority, a quasi-state agency contracting with McAllister for the design.

In 2007, as part of the Energy and Security Act, the federal government was authorized to designate marine highway corridors as alternatives to interstate roads to reduce congestion and pollution.

In 2010, the Maine Port Authority was among a group that successfully applied to have the Portland to New York/New Jersey route designated as part of “M-95,” as in “Marine 95,” an alternative to the I-95 road corridor. Just seven other marine corridors were established that year, Henshaw said, including along the Mississippi River and along parts of the Pacific coast.

The M-95 designation meant that federal transportation funds could be sought. The design of the tug-barge was funded through that process. After qualifying for the work, three firms bid on the $150,000 design project and McAllister was selected, Henshaw said.

“They’re a very good, old company,” he said, that operates shipping lines from Maine to Puerto Rico. “They gave a very impressive response to our [request for proposals].”

Typically, coastal barges are towed with a long cable by a tug. An articulated tug-barge includes a 400-500 foot barge with a tug whose specially designed bow fits into a kind of key-shape in the barge’s stern.

“The barge has a ship-like bow,” Henshaw explained, and the tug stays connected at all times, which means the barge moves more quickly and safely than towed barges.

Prices that are competitive with trucking can’t be achieved with older tugs and barges; bad weather also delays barges towed by tugs, he said.

“We’re trying to get the lowest cost of shippers,” he said. The so-called ATBs—articulated tug barges—often are used by coastal petroleum shippers.

Building the barge and tug could cost between $40 million and $65 million, but federal transportation funds might be available for the work, Henshaw said. One scenario would have the barge owned by a public entity like the Maine Port Authority and the tug remain privately owned and operated.

Part of the thinking driving the tug-barge plan is the federal Jones Act, which requires that all shipping that begins and ends in U.S. ports must use U.S.-built ships and be crewed by U.S. mariners. Henshaw noted that a firm like East Boothbay’s Washburn & Doughty and Associates has built tugs for the Moran company, and so could be in the running for construction.

Though Maine ships material like wood pulp out of state in barges, the ATB would be used to haul shipping containers.

“We’re an export heavy state because of our forest products economy,” Henshaw said, but he believes that can be reversed. “We found that there were significant prospects for moving products” both in and out of state.

The plan also calls for a stop at a yet-to-be-determined New England port, perhaps Boston.

The “lift-on, lift-off” containers that are 20-, 40- and 45-feet long provide more cost-effective shipping when they leave Maine full and return the same way. Such regular shipping between Portland and the ports of New York and New Jersey hasn’t existed in 50 years, Henshaw said.

“We really believe there’s a critical mass of cargo. We ship a lot of water out of the state of Maine,” he said, referring to Poland Spring. LL Bean also is a likely player in the container traffic.

Chellie Pingree, Maine’s 1st District congresswoman, pushed for the federal funding, she said in a press release.

“The design of this vessel is the key to bringing increased domestic cargo service to Maine,” she said. “It could cost between one-third and one-half what a more traditional container ship would cost and use fewer crew, thus reducing capital and operational costs that could then be passed on to shippers.”