Specter leads rally praising port work

U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, appearing yesterday at a pep rally on a Philadelphia dock on a sweltering day, said he was confident that the Delaware River would be deepened and that the massive project would create 175,000 jobs in years to come.

Asked if anything could sink the project, Specter replied: "I don't think so."

The event was billed as a news conference, leading some to expect an announcement, perhaps the date when giant machines would begin carving a ship channel five feet deeper, to 45 feet, from the Atlantic Ocean to Philadelphia and Camden.

Instead, the event turned out to be a rally. It was organized to keep dredging and other port issues in the public eye, said Brian J. Preski, chairman of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority and a partner at the law firm of Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen L.L.P.

A row of Iraq-bound military equipment was on display, he said, to remind people that the port helps keep inland Pennsylvania military installations, particularly those that repair equipment damaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, open and busy.

As port, political and labor officials thanked one another for hard work on the long-sought river-deepening project, longshoremen and others waved thank-you signs. Behind the speakers, giant cranes hoisted empty containers onto a ship, to be taken back overseas and refilled.

No documentation was given for the oft-repeated assertion that expanding the port would generate 175,000 jobs; nothing was offered on how soon the new jobs might come.

Specter, a Republican, praised Gov. Rendell, a Democrat, who was not present, for "going 18 rounds" in a fight that "turned into a brass-knuckle affair" with New Jersey over the dredging project.

Rendell, who is also chairman of the bi-state Delaware River Port Authority, had kept its board from meeting for 17 months because of New Jersey's opposition to dredging.

The two states eventually made a deal, announced in May, that allowed the river to be deepened between the two states. But it shifted the local cost share from the bi-state authority to the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, a Pennsylvania state agency.

With ships that are on order too large for the existing channel, each speaker declared the project essential to port growth and the region's economy.

Referring to vigorous opposition from environmental groups, Specter said: "We have had a very careful environmental-impact study. That issue has been laid to rest."

Politics, not environmental concerns, have delayed the project, Specter said.

Environmentalists were quick to disagree. Maya K. van Rossum, who heads a group called Delaware Riverkeeper, said in a statement released soon after the event that "the promises being made are false and doing a disservice to all communities of the region that rely on the river and its ports. There is no credible economic or environmental justification for this project."

Specter deferred questions about when dredging would commence to port officials.

Dennis Rochford, president of the Marine Trade Association for the Delaware Bay and River, said a contract could be awarded late next year or in early 2009. As soon as that happens, the port can begin marketing itself for larger ships, he said.

The project is projected to cost $277 million, with the federal government paying 65 percent, or about $180 million. So far, Congress has approved $66.4 million.

Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) pledged to keep working with Specter on funding. They praised State Rep. Bill Keller (D., Phila.), a former longshoreman, for keeping lawmakers in Harrisburg and Washington focused on the opportunities for job creation at the port.

Top labor leaders - Patrick J. Eiding of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, John J. Dougherty of the Electricians Local 98, and Frank Gillen of the Pennsylvania Teamsters Conference - joined the officials on the platform, all touting the port's role in creating jobs.

Contact staff writer Henry J. Holcomb at 215-854-2614 or hholcomb@phillynews.com.