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Pennsylvania officials celebrate continued Delaware dredging

It was a lovefest among Pennsylvania elected officials, Democrat and Republican, on the banks of the Delaware River on Tuesday.

Gov. Corbett announced that another contract was awarded to deepen 11 miles of channel. (Elise Wrabetz / Staff Photographer)
Gov. Corbett announced that another contract was awarded to deepen 11 miles of channel. (Elise Wrabetz / Staff Photographer)Read more

It was a lovefest among Pennsylvania elected officials, Democrat and Republican, on the banks of the Delaware River on Tuesday.

Gov. Corbett and labor, business, and government leaders gathered at Packer Avenue Marine Terminal in South Philadelphia to celebrate the continued deepening of the Delaware River's 103-mile main shipping channel that began in March 2010.

The remaining legal challenge to the project, by New Jersey and some environmental groups, was tossed out by a federal appeals court last month.

President Obama proposed $31 million in his forthcoming fiscal budget for the project. The U.S. Senate and House have appropriated $31 million and $29.4 million, respectively - the number still must be hammered out.

Corbett, echoing support that began with former Gov. Ed Rendell, announced that a third dredging contract was recently awarded, to deepen 11 miles of channel from the Walt Whitman Bridge to just south of Philadelphia International Airport.

The next stretch, starting in December, will be 14 miles of the channel south of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.

The entire $300 million deepening, from Camden to the Atlantic Ocean, is expected to be finished by 2017.

"Studies have estimated that by deepening this river channel to 45 feet, we will create 8,000 to 12,000 direct jobs and spin off as many as 38,000 more throughout the region," Corbett said.

While Corbett is bullish on deepening the Delaware to accommodate bigger ships, promote commerce, and create jobs, his Republican counterpart across the river, Gov. Christie - and New Jersey - remain staunchly opposed, citing economic and environmental grounds.

Has Corbett ever tried to change the mind of his friend in the Garden State?

"I've had conversations with him. I'm not going to reveal what they were," Corbett said. "I'm not going to speculate on his opposition."

Delaware, which originally sued to stop the deepening, now publicly supports it to accommodate larger ships and trade that is expected to come to the East Coast from Asia after the Panama Canal is expanded in 2014.

Pennsylvania State Rep. William Keller, a South Philadelphia Democrat, said the linchpin in securing the federal money - $16.7 million this year and $29.4 million in fiscal 2013 - was getting the support of Delaware lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.) and Gov. Jack Markell.

"I think they were the tipping point," Keller said.

Deepening the channel has been debated for nearly three decades, and U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, a Democrat whose district includes much of the riverfront in Philadelphia and Delaware County, recalled the long journey.

"I got elected in 1998, and I got a phone call from then-Congressman Bob Borski who said, 'You got to get down here. They are voting on dredging,' " Brady said. "So here we are 14 years later. For those 14 years, we had to fight amendments back. A lot of our friends from the other side of the river didn't want to see this happen.

"To our dear friends across the river, we got it done!" Brady said, with a wave to New Jersey.

Deepening the channel to 45 feet, from 40 feet, would put ports on the Delaware in line with other major East Coast ports. The Port of New York is being deepened to 50 feet.

U.S. Sen. Robert Casey (D., Pa.) told the crowd, "This is a project about jobs, tens of thousands of jobs. We are talking about the future of this city, Southeastern Pennsylvania, and the entire Commonwealth."

Casey, along with U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) and Coons, introduced an amendment to an energy and water bill to shift already appropriated money for navigation construction. That led to the $16.7 million in the Army Corps' 2012 work plan.

Toomey said he favored less federal spending "as a general matter" but "not all federal funding is created equal."

"By deepening this channel, we are enhancing the value of a very important Pennsylvania and regional asset. This is all about economic growth," he said.

To date, 12 miles south of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, and another four miles off northern Delaware have been deepened.

Pennsylvania, and the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority as local sponsor, have spent $40 million toward the project, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers just under $50 million.

The federal government is supposed to pay 65 percent, and Pennsylvania as local sponsor, 35 percent of the total tab.

U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan, a Republican from Delaware County, praised the bipartisan effort, in both houses of Congress, that finally got money in the federal budget "to keep the dredges churning. This is fighting for jobs in our house," Meehan said. "Because if we don't fight for them, they will go to guys wearing Giants jerseys, and Redskins jerseys, and Falcons jerseys - and that just doesn't seem right."