Section of world's largest ship -- a 'floating city' -- to be built here Some doubt plans to use vessel as a troop ship

November 11, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Without public debate, Congress has told the Pentagon to spend $15 million to plan for production of what would be the world's largest ship -- a passenger liner to be developed by European interests that would be partially constructed at Bethlehem Steel's shipyard at Sparrows Point.

Members of Congress promoted the deal as a way to revive struggling U.S. shipyards while providing what could become a valuable troop ship in time of war.

But critics, including some Pentagon officials, view it as a floating pork barrel and dispute its military value.

"We don't move troops by sea," said Margaret B. Holtz, a civilian spokeswoman for the Navy's Military Sealift Command. "We move troops by air."

And a Navy officer with the Joint Chiefs of Staff said he was surprised by the funding. "This is all news to us," he said. "We've got better ways to spend the money, believe me."

The money got tucked into the 1993 defense budget long after public hearings were over. After Congress left, it came to light in an obscure reference in the Congressional Record.

It had appeal for lawmakers who represent states and districts with maritime interests. The ship is to be so big -- twice the size of the Titanic -- that it would have to be built in sections at nine U.S. yards.

In addition to Bethlehem Steel, shipyards involved are Avondale Industries of Louisiana, Bender Shipbuilding of Alabama, General Dynamics of Connecticut, Gunderson Marine of Oregon, Newport News of Virginia, Southwest Marine of California, Tampa Shipyards of Florida and Trinity Marine of Mississippi.

"Tens of millions of man-hours for this billion-plus dollar project will be spread over most if not all states of the union," officials with Norway's World City Corp., the ship's developer, told Congress. "Implementation of Phoenix World City will mean immediate translation into jobs."

No member's name is linked to the $15 million that taxpayers will pump into the project, but congressional aides and the ship's backers said it was largely the handiwork of Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

Murtha and other Pennsylvania lawmakers support the project, at least in part, because the Norwegian owners have said they want to use the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard to repair and maintain the big boat. The Pennsylvanians are fighting a Pentagon decision to close the yard in 1996. A Murtha aide did not return calls seeking comment.

The Pentagon's $15 million will pay for new shipbuilding techniques and designs vital to the ship's construction, according to John F. Aylmer, a retired rear admiral who lobbied Congress for the money.

Its 21 decks would support three huge hotel towers, six pools and assorted restaurants, bars and boutiques. It would even house a marina where smaller vessels could dock inside its hull.

"She's a floating city," boasted John S. Rogers, the New York-based lawyer overseeing its development. "It will have everything."

After four years of construction, the U.S.-flagged vessel would be based at Port Canaveral, Fla.

Norwegian ship owner Knut Kloster, founder of several cruise lines, has spent eight years and about $25 million of his own money on the project. Mr. Rogers said all profits from the ship would go to Kloster's World City Foundation, with headquarters in Norway, which is dedicated to educational and environmental causes.

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