The Port of Philadelphia will soon be getting military cargo ships bound for, and returning from, Iraq, after a two-year hiatus in which the vessels went to Southern and Gulf Coast ports.
In 2004, Philadelphia was the fourth-busiest U.S. port and a key supply channel for Iraq.
Then in 2007, the shipments dried up and went instead to Charleston, S.C.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Beaumont and Corpus Christi, Texas.
Pennsylvania's elected officials, led by U.S. Rep. Robert A. Brady, and port advocates have lobbied hard to get that military business back. Now it's going to happen, said the Democrat whose district includes Packer Avenue Marine Terminal in South Philadelphia, where the vessels dock.
In September, the first ship will come into Packer Avenue, deploying equipment from Fort Drum, N.Y. - home to the 10th Mountain Division - to either Iraq or Afghanistan.
Officials expect a second ship, with containers of equipment from Iraq bound for the Pennsylvania Army National Guard at Fort Indiantown Gap, to dock here in the fall.
A third vessel is expected to return damaged military equipment to Philadelphia for repair at Fort Drum later in the fall.
"Between now and the end of the year, we have three vessels scheduled," said Leo Holt, whose family operates Packer Avenue Terminal. "That's after a fairly long drought."
Holt said handling military equipment and cargo returning from war, termed Operation Reset, "is going to be a huge thing. Philadelphia is very much on the map."
While the waterfront served as a strategic military seaport, 25 cargo ships passed through here.
"I spoke to the general in charge and a few other people at the Department of Defense," said Brady, who was joined in the effort by Sens. Arlen Specter and Robert Casey, Gov. Rendell's office, and the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority.
"Then I wrote them a letter. Anytime they came near my [Armed Services] committee, I always grabbed them," Brady said. "I met with them. They said, 'We'll rethink it.' I got a letter back that they're coming to us again. I got a commitment they are going to use our port more and more."
Kate McNamara, Rendell's special assistant, said she was "involved from a policy level," but the political muscle came from Brady.
Another indefatigable advocate for military business at the Philadelphia port has been Susan Howland, president of the Howland Group Inc., of Trevose, and consultant to the Delaware River Maritime Enterprise Council.
In 2002, when the Philadelphia port was designated one of 19 in the United States certified to handle the nation's military cargoes, Philadelphia geared up "more than any port in the country," Howland said.
"We fought to become a strategic port. We trained the workforce in new technologies, implemented additional security measures when the ships were here, created new staging facilities," she said.
When Philadelphia lost military shipments, no other North Atlantic port got the business, even though much of the equipment was headed to or from Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Maine. Philadelphia likely lost the business because of personnel changes inside the Defense Department, and persuasive lobbying.
Two of the Army's largest repair sites are Letterkenny Army Depot in Chambersburg, Pa., and Tobyhanna Army Depot in Mount Pocono, Howland said. One of the largest defense distribution warehouses "in the world" is Susquehanna outside Harrisburg, she said.
"We never lost our designation. We just haven't been getting the vessel calls," said James B. Walsh, director of operations for the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority. "The military just hasn't used us."
That's about to change, and Brady said he would "stay on top of it."
He estimated the economic impact to the region at $1.4 million for each military ship that loads and unloads trucks, humvees, bulldozers, helicopters, and scores of containers with tents and supplies.
At stake are thousands of hours of work for longshoremen, pilots who guide the vessels up the river, tugboat operators, line handlers who tie up the ships, ship agents, and business for scores of maritime and transportation enterprises.
"Absolutely, we'd love to have it," Walsh said. "We've always pursued it, and done everything we can to attract it here. But it comes down to the decision of where they [Defense officials] want to go."