With their plans to deepen the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal in tatters, about 200 members of the Baltimore port community traveled to Washington yesterday to remind Maryland's congressional delegation that there are still three dredging projects in the pipeline that need political support in an age of limited budgets.
The unusual show of force was part of an otherwise routine briefing by state transportation officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers aimed at educating federal lawmakers about the dredging projects, which involve straightening, deepening and widening various anchorages and approach channels to the port.
Some of the work has already received partial or full funding from Congress, while the rest is still awaiting appropriation.
The port considers all three projects - worth a total of $54 million - to be critical to its chances of preserving jobs on the city's working waterfront.
But persuading Congress to appropriate enough money to help pay for dredging has sometimes been made difficult by environmental critics, who charge that it is harmful to the Chesapeake Bay, and by dissension within the state's congressional delegation.
The port has responded by organizing frequent port tours for state and federal lawmakers and by organizing events similar to yesterday's.
"There was a communications component to this," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican. "It says the port speaks with one voice, and because of the political environment and some of the controversies surrounding these issues, that is absolutely critical."
Five members of the state's congressional delegation attended the briefing, which was held in the Rayburn House Office Building. Eastern Shore Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest, a frequent critic of both the Corps of Engineers and the port's dredging agenda, was among those not present. An aide said Gilchrest had been held up in another meeting.
Representatives of various shipping lines, labor unions and other port interests packed the hearing room and crowded the hallway outside, much to the consternation of the building's security force. Some waved hand-held fans that said "Go to bat for the port," while others wore orange buttons on their shirts saying, "Dredge or die."
Port business leaders say the bunker mentality was inspired in part by the Corps' decision in January to end work on the C&D Canal project until the port can prove that the economic benefits will outweigh the estimated costs. The decision was a blow to Maryland transportation officials, who fought for nearly a dozen years to get the project approved and say they are still hoping to reverse the corps' decision.
The C&D project was doomed in part by the defeat of a controversial plan to dispose of dredge spoils from the project in an area of the bay known as Site 104. Environmentalists argued that dumping the spoils into open water in the bay would harm aquatic wildlife and damage water quality.
Recognizing they face a difficult political environment, port officials and state lawmakers in February signed a deal with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to permanently ban open bay dumping of dredge material, except at one site, Pooles Island. And dumping there will be phased out by 2010 or sooner. The legislation means the foundation also will be involved in discussions concerning future dredge disposal sites, which are fast running out of space.
With three more dredging projects still on the table, port business leaders went to Washington with hopes of avoiding further setbacks.
"When we started having problems last year, we realized that, hey, we're going to these guys when we need them, and we need to go to them more often so that they know who we are," said Morgan C. "Trip" Bailey, president of Baltimore Forest Products Terminals and a member of the Private Sector Port Committee. The conglomeration of private port business leaders held a fund-raiser last fall that paid for yesterday's outing.
Lawmakers who attended the briefing, which was requested by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, expressed surprise at the size of the crowd and mostly praised the corps and port.
But Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican, said the large showing also was evidence of the level of disagreement that exists among policy-makers and environmentalists with respect to the dredging projects.
"I know there is some serious difference of opinion between [Gilchrest] and the corps and so forth, and I came here to learn," he said after the hearing.
"But when you only have one side of the story presented to you, you haven't learned much," Bartlett said. "I'm really impressed at all the people that came here, but you really need to have the other side of the story."