For more than 15 months, the Delaware River Port Authority has been held hostage to an unseemly test of wills between Pennsylvania and New Jersey politicians. If the impasse ends tomorrow - and there are finally hints that it may - it would not be a day too soon.
Pennsylvania Gov. Rendell supports deepening the Delaware's channel (as does this Editorial Board) so that the Port of Philadelphia can accommodate larger ships. But successive governors of New Jersey and other state officials, including U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, say dredging would pose environmental hazards and be too expensive. Dredging foes have suggested other ways to improve the port's ability to handle more shipping traffic.
Since December 2005, Rendell and the rest of Pennsylvania's delegation have boycotted DRPA meetings in protest. That has prevented the board from approving a new budget or conducting other official business.
The dredging stalemate has stalled an overdue overhaul of PATCO rail cars; thwarted DRPA in refinancing its debt; and brought a credit downgrade from Standard & Poor's, which makes the agency's future borrowing more expensive.
While DRPA and PATCO officials insist the dispute has not led to safety issues for the thousands of commuters who use the bridges and the rail line every day, there are tell-tale signs of stress. For instance, PATCO's fleet has fewer functional rail cars available from which to pick the number that are pressed into duty each day.
Rendell and Gov. Corzine were talking about ways to resolve the dispute until the New Jersey governor was severely injured in a recent highway accident. One potential deal would involve transferring the dredging responsibilities from the DRPA to the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, thus making Pennsylvania fully responsible for the project.
However and whenever this sorry saga is ended, it's clear that there needs to be a review of the way the DRPA is structured and operates. With eight board members from each of the two states, the agency has no obvious tiebreaker or referee in an interstate dispute.
A Rendell spokesman says boycotting DRPA board meetings was the only leverage that the governor had to press his point. It shouldn't be that way.
Spokesmen for both Rendell and Corzine declined to say just what kind of settlement is being discussed, which raises another issue - openness. Should two guys at either end of a phone line between Trenton and Harrisburg decide an issue of such public import?
Issues such as the merits of the dredging, its cost - estimated variously at $300 million or $500 million - as well as New Jersey's environmental concerns need to be openly considered and decided, if not at the DRPA then in some other forum.