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Editorial | Dredging the Delaware

One mucked-up process

So the war between New Jersey and Pennsylvania over dredging the Delaware River is over, and the


are going to Pennsylvania. Not just the dredge spoils - mud, sand and whatever else is raked up - but also most of the regional port and infrastructure development and jobs that backers expect the project to generate.

That's as it should be, since Pennsylvania will be picking up virtually the entire local portion of the project's tab. The federal government will pay 65 percent of the estimated $277 million cost, and New Jersey has chosen to watch from the sidelines.

Case finally closed. Or is it?

One needn't question the merits of deepening the shipping channel in the Delaware - it's an essential component of ensuring the future vitality of the region's ports - to express dismay at the process that led to this week's bistate settlement.

Admittedly, a compromise was not easy. One side wanted to deepen the river's main shipping channel while the other wanted no deepening at all. There was a lot of digging in of heels until the more persistent governor, Ed Rendell, prevailed.

Nonetheless, citizens of both states were entitled to a more transparent process than the Middle East-type shuttle diplomacy between Trenton and Harrisburg that they got.

Two governors, aided by a private intermediary, came up with a deal that will expend hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money without any public input or scrutiny. The process of negotiating this deal was as murky as the river.

A key public forum for such negotiations, the Delaware River Port Authority, was sidelined for 17 months by a Rendell boycott and now is out of the picture. A major opponent of the project, Rep. Rob Andrews (D., N.J.), vows to continue opposing it in Congress.

The opposition from New Jersey all along has been based on two concerns, namely that the dredging could be an environmental calamity and that the economic benefits may fall short of the cost.

One of these concerns should be addressed by an updated environmental impact study that New Jersey Gov. Corzine rightly made a condition of his consent for the project.

Conspicuously absent from the settlement, however, is any mention of a fresh economic impact study.

It's a glaring omission considering that an initial such study by the Army Corps of Engineers was found to be flawed, first by the federal Government Accountability Office and then by a cargo transfer company. As a result, project benefits were twice revised downward. The Corps also has raised its cost estimate from $242 million to the current $277 million.

The Corps' cost-benefit analysis focuses entirely on savings to be had from new shipping efficiencies and does not consider a wider economic impact, such as job creation.

For that, Rendell and other backers of the project rely on a study commissioned by a group of maritime entities. It projects the creation of 175,000 direct and indirect jobs from port and infrastructure improvements related to the dredging.

Rendell says even half that number of jobs would justify the dredging, and he holds out the tantalizing prospect that many of these jobs would pay "70, 80, 90, 100,000 dollars."

Currently, longshoremen working in the region average $60,000 a year, far below the national average of $114,000. So there seems to be potential here if shipping traffic grows as expected.

Then again, maybe the governor is too optimistic. There's no way to know for sure without a broadbased economic-impact study backed by the three states involved, including Delaware. That should be done.