Pennsylvania and New Jersey have made a deal that ends the dispute over the proposed Delaware River channel-deepening project and allows the Delaware River Port Authority board to meet today for the first time in 17 months.
The agreement would make the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority the project sponsor and require Pennsylvania to keep the dredged spoils and seek an environmental-impact statement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, officials close to the negotiations said yesterday.
It would also allow New Jersey to retain its permitting authority and release it from any financial obligations, the officials said. About $40 million that had been raised by the DRPA for the project would be split between the two states.
In addition, as part of the deal, Pennsylvania would agree to an expansion of the PATCO High-Speed Line in Center City and into Gloucester County, officials said.
John Matheussen, DRPA chief executive officer and PATCO president, was ecstatic over the news yesterday, saying he was "very pleased to have the board back. We have many capital issues for the DRPA and PATCO to be considered by the board."
Jeffrey Nash, DRPA vice chairman and a Camden County freeholder, added: "We're grateful that there is an agreement and that we can get back to work."
Representatives of Govs. Rendell and Corzine said the two chief executives would have an announcement today, but would not comment on the agreement.
Rendell, as the DRPA chairman, had refused to call a board meeting of the agency until New Jersey agreed to deepen the river's shipping channel from 40 to 45 feet along a 103-mile stretch.
Opponents of the project, such as U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D., N.J.), fear that the dredged material would contain environmental hazards and that the project was ill-conceived and too costly.
But proponents said the dredging was absolutely necessary. They say that increased depth of the river will help attract more ship traffic and larger ships, and create tens of thousands of jobs.
Dredging supporter Bill McLaughlin, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, called the agreement an "extraordinarily important benchmark for the Port of Philadelphia.
"It assures the participation of Philadelphia and the Delaware River in maritime commerce for generations to come," he said. "It will allow expansion of port facilities and infrastructure, which will allow cargo tonnage, which will allow an expanded tax base and attract new jobs."
McLaughlin said the opposition to the project had been "perverse."
"It's as if they want the port to fail," he said. "This is a vitally necessary step. Every year, the Army Corps of Engineers dredges the Delaware River to maintain the 40-foot depth. Whatever calamitous environmental disaster that was supposed to come hasn't happened."
Another dredging proponent, Pennsylvania State Rep. William Keller, a Democrat who represents South Philadelphia, said that "close to 175,000 people will be put to work in this region in the next 10 years because of the project."
Others were not so optimistic or happy yesterday about the bi-state agreement. Andrews called it "a bad deal" for South Jersey.
"It fails to provide South Jersey absolute assurances that it will not be used as a dumping ground for Pennsylvania's dredge spoils," he said.
Environmental organizations have urged New Jersey state legislators to hold hearings to investigate how the deal was made and how it will affect citizens, as well as the environment, economy, and ports of New Jersey.
Maya K. van Rossum of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a Bristol-based advocacy organization, said: "This deal moves New Jersey out of the driver's seat where it could prevent this harmful project.
"We are now in the backseat, providing comments which will undoubtedly be ignored," she said. "Despite efforts to spin this agreement to make it seem protective of New Jersey, it comes down to a political deal allowing Pennsylvania to control the river, moving forward one of the most controversial and dangerous projects our communities face."
Opponents of the project plan to attend the DRPA meeting at 10:30 a.m. today at the DRPA headquarters at One Port Center, 2 Riverside Dr., Camden.