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Sen. Casey talks Delaware deepening, transportation funding

Monday morning I sat down with Senator Bob Casey at his Philadelphia office at 20th and Market streets. He wanted to talk about the nearing conclusion of the $360 million Delaware Deepening project, which is more than half finished and by 2017 will have deepened the river to 45 feet, making it accessible to some of the biggest ships in the world. This is being looked at as a potentially major economic driver for the region, with a promise to create thousands of jobs.

Among the plans to take advantage of the deepening is Southport, a plan for a proposed marine terminal at the Navy Yard. Governor Tom Wolf recently said that if the site is used as an energy terminal it could create up to 590 jobs. If it is used for another purpose, it could create up to 3,720 jobs.

I also wanted to talk to the Senator about the recently passed omnibus bill that created $305 billion in funding over five years. The bill included $370 million for bridge repair and $199 million to help railroads install Positive Train Control, a braking system that experts said would have prevented the deadly Amtrak crash in Philadelphia.

The following are excerpts from the conversation.

Why is this something that you wanted to talk about now?

Number one is I think it's a substantial opportunity for the city and the region, number one. Number two is we're not there yet but we're getting close to completion, and we have to make sure we make full use of that opportunity, not only because of the cargo that comes from the Panama Canal, but just generally, we've got to make sure that folks are aware that we're coming to the end of this project and that it creates an opportunity, but it's not going to be an opportunity that's self executed, we've got to make sure that we're prepared for it and like any other economic development or growth opportunity we've got to incorporate it into a larger strategy

(Casey then talked about what it took to get federal attention for the dredging project)

It wasn't really until about late June of 2011 when the President was in town for the whole day, most of the day, but I remember he was here for a major fund raising event as well. We were driving down 95 from the airport, I was in the car with him, and I thought, when you're working on a president to get dollars for your state or your city or whatever it is, you can't give him five requests. You can't even give him three, because that can get a little bit unwieldy. You've got to be really focused and I decided that I would talk about one project, especially because we were driving up 95 in the same vicinity, I started telling him about the deepening project. He was generally aware of it, but not really focused on it. And I tried to describe it quickly and said we needed a lot of federal dollars to get it done. And he said to me, what agency? And I said, the Army Corps of Engineers. He said, okay. He said, well look I'll talk to our folks about it and I'll spend some time on it. I cannot guarantee you but I'll take a look at it.

That was one engagement with the top person that I had to have.

Then I had to go, and a lot of folks, in terms of Vice President Biden, over and over and over again. He was very helpful on this, by the way. Then go to the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) Director, which ultimately became Shaun Donovan. And just keep banging away, making sure every executive branch office that was relevant was staying focused on it. You had to be a broken record. And just make sure that every year we made progress.

You had mentioned the Panama Canal expansion was going to be finished by 2017. Is it critical that our project match up with that one, in a sense that you want to create the habit of ships coming through there and then coming here?

Yeah, that you don't lose with that kind of cargo moving from the Panama Canal, with the expansion of that, you want to make sure that our port is prepared to take that cargo. All the more reason for the deepening. Even if that was not happening, this would be crucial, I think, just in terms of competition with other ports, especially in light of the Panama Canal.

It looks like Norfolk and Baltimore both have deeper ports than this 45 foot. Why would you say that we would still get a lot of those ships, since those are more southern ports, it would be easier for ships to just go there?

I think because we will be at 45, that's kind of an entry point, or a bottom line. We have a good location. we've got a port that's got a strong reputation and track record. I think we're going to attract plenty of business. I can't put a number on it but I think we're going to be in good shape.

What's your take on the Southport plan, what would you like to see that end up being?

It's part of a larger strategic focus. In order to take full advantage of these opportunities it's not going to be… you've got to bring together the deepening with other opportunities as well.

Some estimates are just between Philadelphia and Wilmington, you could have as much as $1 billion more in activity on an annual basis. If that is even approaching being accurate, that's a huge infusion.

One of the most recent articles we wrote about this, the governor said that if this potential port goes with a non-energy use that would create several thousand jobs, whereas if it goes for an energy use, it's a couple hundred jobs. If it's going to create fewer jobs to have it as an energy hub, what's the offsetting benefit?

I don't think I know enough to evaluate the differential there. But obviously, look, This energy opportunity writ large for the region is something I'm not sure anyone could have anticipated. It's interesting, in our state we've had a history of, because we're such a big state geographically, and because of the diversity of the state we rarely have ever been able to unite east and west. Natural gas kind of allows that opportunity.

The only thing close to this we had in our history was when the state had a system of canals which stretched from the west to the east, really kind of linking together and knitting together the state. We've never really had that opportunity since then that has both, in this case, not just a knitting together of the state but a real a really significant opportunity because its an energy opportunity I'm not sure anyone could have imagined eight or 10 years ago.

I do have to ask you about the transportation bill, the omnibus bill that passed. Any thoughts on what that's going to mean for Pennsylvania?

Yeah a couple things. One of the huge wins I got were the bridge dollars. Bridge funding generally benefits. And in our state you've got bridges that have been on the structurally deficient list for years if not decades, we've got more of those than any other state, more than 5,000. So that's a good win.

The off-system bridges, a couple years ago because I was able to work with (Sen.) Roy Blunt from Missouri in changing the allocation, we were able to free up about $73 million bucks for Pennsylvania. Now that will be a recurring number over the five years of the bill, so it'll be $73 point something multiplied by five years, which is going to help a lot.

Another part of the bill which reflects our work in Pennsylvania, especially in the eastern side, is the positive train control dollars, about $199 million for that. I don't know what the allocation of that means for Pennsylvania, but certainly it benefits us. Some of the transit dollars are important as well, but probably the most important think for a state like ours, in addition to the things I've itemized, is the certainty in knowing that a project will have multiple years of funding. That uncertainty has been one of the biggest challenges we've had.

What are your thoughts on the gas tax? Raising the gas tax versus taxing miles driven? Obviously that's kind of the big question mark when the bill came out.

Well there wasn't anywhere near a consensus to do that so the funding of this bill became a collection of pay fors, the bulk of it being the federal reserve. The federal reserve dollars, but look in a state like ours when you have a gas tax implication on the state policy, albeit in the distance and not as noticed that much, it's not easy to say in addition to what the state is doing we're going to add more on the federal.

What do you personally think? Do you think that they should raise the federal gas tax?

I don't think we need to at this point because we've got a five year bill now, but its something we're going to have to confront again. What we can't do is have a repetition or a replay of what happened the past couple years where there's no finality with regard to a transportation bill so you're having these short term extensions even two years is frankly too short. So I think it's going to surface again when were approaching the next deadline at the end of five years.  What we should do is starting year three getting ready for the next transportation bill if not earlier.