Supporters of deepening the Delaware River navigation channel an additional five feet are making a big push now to secure federal funds that soon will be designated for navigation-improvement projects this year.

Before Christmas, Congress approved a fiscal 2012 spending plan that for the first time specified an amount, $74 million, to go for navigation construction aimed at improving traffic efficiency on U.S. rivers.

Deepening the Delaware's channel from 40 to 45 feet qualifies as such a project. The Army's office for civil works, with input from the federal Office of Management and Budget, will decide by the first week in February where the money will go.

U.S. Sens. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), and Chris Coons (D., Del.) worked on an amendment to an energy and water bill to shift already-appropriated funds in the Army Corps' fiscal 2012 budget for navigation construction.

"This doesn't usually happen, that Congress has included language in their bill to make sure the Corps sets aside a certain amount for navigation-improvement projects," said Edward Voigt, the Corps' public-affairs and congressional liaison in Philadelphia.

Typically, the Corps' budgets list, item by item, every project, and the amount for each.

Also new is a combined effort by Delaware and Pennsylvania to push for federal funds to move the project forward. So far, 17 miles of the 102-mile channel from Philadelphia to the Atlantic Ocean have been deepened to 45 feet.

"It's very important not only for Delaware, but for the region," said Eugene Bailey, executive director of the Port of Wilmington. "You need deeper water to bring in larger ships, which should generate additional business and provide additional jobs."

On Friday, Casey wrote to Jacob Lew, newly appointed White House chief of staff and outgoing director of the Office of Management and Budget, urging funding for the deepening in the Corps' 2012 work plan, as well as in the president's fiscal year 2013 budget, which will be out next month.

Investing in a deeper channel would bolster the competitiveness of the region's exporters, "which aligns with the administration's goal of doubling exports over the next five years," Casey wrote, and would create and retain jobs and accommodate larger ships carrying more cargo up the river.

"The unemployment rate has been above 10 percent for a long, long time in the city of Philadelphia," Casey said Monday. "In the region, you have approximately 250,000 people out of work. So this is a big job issue - both direct and indirect jobs, short-term and long-term."

Ports on the East Coast expect to see increased traffic from Asia once the Panama Canal expansion is completed in 2014.

Historically, projects that are already well under way have been more likely to be funded the following year, until they are completed, Voigt said.

"If the project is truly under way," he said, "then you are more likely to say, 'Well, let's finish what we've started.' "

Pennsylvania, as the local project sponsor, has spent about $40 million on dredging work.

The federal government, which is supposed to pay two-thirds of the total $300 million cost, has spent about $4 million on actual dredging.

Deepening the river channel has been debated for nearly three decades. In 1983, then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter introduced the initial legislation, later approved by Congress.

Digging five feet deeper began in March 2010 on a 13-mile stretch of water off Delaware after U.S. District Judge Sue L. Robinson in Wilmington denied a request to block it.

The combined ports of the Delaware River support about 75,000 jobs, produce billions in revenue and payroll wages, and contribute more than $150 million in state and local taxes, the court noted.

"This project has regional appeal, and bipartisan support," said Dennis Rochford, president of the Maritime Exchange for the Delaware River and Bay. "An awful lot has been achieved in the last six months. I'm encouraged that we ought to be able to secure this federal funding."

Contact staff writer Linda Loyd at 215-854-2831 or lloyd@phillynews.com.