Delay urged in decision on dredging

State says port needs C&D Canal deepened for good of business

Federal money is at stake

Foes say project would cost too much, hurt environment

January 19, 2001|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

Amid rumors that the project might not win federal approval, Maryland officials are seeking to delay a decision on whether taxpayer money should be spent to deepen a 60-mile shipping channel through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal until new economic data can be gathered that might help justify the project's cost.

The appeal comes as the Army Corps of Engineers in Philadelphia is preparing to recommend whether the dredging project makes economic sense and merits spending federal dollars.

State transportation officials have said the project is critical to the port of Baltimore's efforts to retain its shipping business and to attract customers to the city.

The C&D Canal connects the northern Chesapeake Bay to the Delaware Bay via the Elk River, shaving about 150 miles off a trip between the port of Baltimore and New York City.

The project has come under heavy fire from environmentalists and some politicians, who say the dredging project -- originally estimated to cost $82 million -- would be of marginal benefit to shipping companies and come at the expense of the environment and taxpayers.

Sources close to the project said yesterday that the corps was prepared Jan. 12 to recommend against spending federal dollars on the project, a move that would deal a severe blow to the port and potentially put an end to years of debate that has contributed to intense criticism of the Corps of Engineers' methods. Corps officials declined yesterday to reveal their recommendation.

Port officials said the corps staff did not indicate Jan. 12 whether it would recommend for or against federal spending on the project. However, the port asked the corps to delay its report until today. In a follow-up letter dated Tuesday, Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari asked the corps to defer its judgment of the project until emerging trends in the shipping industry could be factored into the corps' economic analysis.

"The economic evaluation, using currently available information, will be based on a number of trends which we believe to be short term in nature, and which would not, therefore, constitute a suitable basis for making a long-term decision regarding such a project," Porcari wrote.

Port officials note pending deals with shipping lines and other recent developments as evidence that the port is in the midst of a turnaround, making the corps' analysis of the project incomplete. The port recently opened an automobile terminal, snagged additional paper imports, secured commitments from a container shipping line and is close to making final a long-term lease with a major shipping line to expand its business in Baltimore.

"Any decision will be based on history and not on the present dynamic in the port," said Kate Philips, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Port Administration.

Shippers back project

By asking the Corps of Engineers to defer judgment on the project, port officials can buy time and possibly bolster their argument that the project is necessary to preserve port jobs.

Steamship lines have said they need a deeper channel to accommodate larger ships. The dredging project would deepen the canal from 35 feet to up to 40 feet.

The corps' Philadelphia District, which has been studying the economics of the project since 1997, said yesterday that it is evaluating the state's request for a delay. A spokesman for the Corps of Engineers said a decision is expected today or Monday.

Critics of the project were quick to dismiss the state's request for a delay as proof that the project does not stand up to scrutiny.

"Every time the port faces defeat, their reaction is, gee, we ought to study it more. ... My sense is that the reason the [Maryland Port Administration] doesn't want the corps to release this study is because clearly it would be damaging to them," said Patrick Welsh, a former legislator and spokesman for a group that has opposed the dumping of dredge spoils in the Chesapeake Bay.

U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who has labeled the project a waste of taxpayer money, said it is clear that the project will not provide the promised benefits to the shipping industry. During the past year, the Eastern Shore Republican has pointed to data showing that a declining number of ships use the canal.

`No benefit'

"Having been involved in this for almost five years, it is clear to anyone willing to look at this project objectively that deepening the C&D Canal provides no benefit to the port of Baltimore or the taxpayers of Maryland," Gilchrest said in a statement released yesterday.

Port interests disagree. They said modern cargo ships need a fast turnaround to be efficient. Without the canal, ships leaving the port of Baltimore for New York City must make the 150-mile trip down the Chesapeake Bay and then head north. The extra time translates into tens of thousands of dollars in added expense per trip, they said.

"The C&D needs some sort of dredging activity," said Rupert Denney, president of the Maryland Maritime Association. He said too much delay in the project could cost the port future business.

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