Murky Bottom: Will Deeper Delaware River Make Philly More Competitive?

When multimillion dollar ‘Delaware Deepening’ project is wrapped up, that’s when the real hard work will start

Credit: Kimberly Paynter/WHYY
The crew on the Drillboat Apache brings in lines tied to explosives used to break up rocks at the bottom of the Delaware River near Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania. It’s one of the final stages of a controversial project to deepen the river’s shipping channel.
This is the third in a series of three stories about dredging and deepening the shipping channel of the Delaware River. Follow these links to read the first and second story.

On a recent afternoon, local politicians and business leaders gathered at the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal in South Philadelphia.

Standing in front of a giant blue and white crane used to lift containers off cargo ships, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) told reporters he’s confident Congress will approve the last chunk of federal funding needed to deepen the Delaware River’s shipping channel this year.

“It’s a great sense of satisfaction because it allows this region to be much more competitive and to chart its own course for the future,” Casey said.

That course for the future is the promise of lots of good-paying jobs.

The project to dredge the river to a depth of 45 feet was held up for nearly three decades by state officials across the river in New Jersey and Delaware who didn’t think it was worth spending millions in taxpayer dollars.

In Pennsylvania, politicians and business leaders argued that without a deeper river, ports in the region would lose out to other East Coast cities.

After the press conference, Casey got on a bus with Leo Holt, whose family operates the Packer Avenue Terminal, for a tour.

Holt pointed out the window at a large cargo vessel and explains that ship can hold about 5,500 TEUs — that’s shipping jargon for containers

“Perfect visual — this ship right here is a monte class ship,” Holt said. “This is old technology. The new generation of ships that these people have are 9,000 TEUs.”

Right now, those big ships can’t make it down the Delaware River — and that’s a problem for Holt and his workers because more of those larger vessels will be heading to the East Coast once the Panama Canal is expanded later this year.

Ports in other cities like New York and Baltimore have already deepened their shipping channels, so people like Holt have been feeling the pressure.

“We have been behind the eight ball and behind the curve,” he said.

Boosters say that’s about to change.

According to the Maritime Exchange — that’s the Delaware River’s chamber of commerce — deepening the channel will increase the amount of cargo coming into ports in the region by 2.5 million tons every year, and more cargo means more good-paying, union jobs to unload it.

But the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, which has chipped in about a third of the cost, is cagier about the economic projections and can’t say exactly what kind of new business it could tap into when the project is finished.

“But here’s what I can tell you,” Don Brennan, the authority’s director of government and public affairs. “I’m going to go across the hall to the marketing guys — there’s three or four of them there. And they’re going to be able to go out and see an account they couldn’t see last year because that account needed 45 feet of water, and they’re going to be able to go out there, and they’re going to be able to talk to them now. And that’s all we want — position us to be more successful than we are.”

But Brennan admits competition among East Coast ports is fierce and Philadelphia is still going to have to fight hard to convince shippers to bring their cargo here as opposed to say, New York or Baltimore.

Adie Tomer is a fellow with the Brookings Institution who studies transportation.

He says it could be a generation before we find out whether this investment pays off.

“And it very well may have very little to do with the depth of the channel there as much as it does with commodity demand, supply as well, and how folks end up shipping goods between markets and whether Philadelphia makes sense to grow their piece of the pie.”

In other words, it might not matter that Philadelphia’s channel is deep enough to welcome these big ships filled with cargo containers if people in the region don’t want to buy what’s in those containers or if shippers can get a better price in another city.

So Brennan’s marketing guys are going to have to sell Philadelphia’s other assets like access to highways and railroads and a flexible labor force that can load and unload ships more quickly.

Six years ago, after nearly three decades of lawsuits and interstate fighting, the Delaware Deepening project got underway without so much as a ribbon-cutting.

Brennan says it’ll be different when the project is finished next year.

“It should be the largest party held at the Port of Philadelphia in 40 years,” he said.

But when the party’s over, that’s when the real work begins.

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