The U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Water has approved nearly all of President Obama's request to finance the disputed project to deepen the Delaware River's main shipping channel to 45 feet.
The subcommittee's report, released Tuesday, includes $29.45 million for the project. Obama had requested $31 million.
Digging the river channel five feet deeper has been debated for nearly three decades and is supported by a bipartisan effort of members of Congress in Pennsylvania and Delaware, governors of the two states, and business and labor leaders.
"After years of needless delays, today the House of Representatives takes an important step toward funding for this project," U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan (R., Pa.) said in a statement. "This is great news for our entire region."
U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, the Pennsylvania Democrat, concurred. "We have made a lot of progress and we need to see this across the finish line," he said.
Proponents say a deeper channel will promote commerce, allow bigger ships, and support more traffic.
The project is opposed by some environmental groups, who say it threatens critical ecosystems and is uneconomic, as well as the State of New Jersey, which has supported dredging in the New York harbor area. Ironically, the appropriation approved Tuesday is listed under New Jersey's allocation, and the energy and water subcommittee is headed by a New Jersey Republican, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen.
Maya van Rossum, head of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, denounced the appropriation in light of ongoing legal challenges. "For Congress to be moving this request forward is irresponsible and foolish," she said.
The federal allocation would represent the most significant federal contribution to actual dredging work since the 102-mile channel deepening began. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will allocate $16.9 million this year to a 15-mile stretch of the Delaware between Penns Landing and Essington. The work is scheduled to begin in early August.
Pennsylvania, as the local project sponsor, has spent about $40 million on deepening 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 .
The House Appropriations Committee will consider the 2013 spending bill on Wednesday.
Inquirer Staff Writer Linda Loyd contributed to this article.