President Obama's new budget, to be submitted to Congress Monday, includes $31 million for continued deepening of the Delaware River navigation channel, two members of Congress said Sunday night.
Supporters say deepening the 102-mile channel by five feet will allow bigger ships - and greater commerce - between Philadelphia and Camden and the Atlantic Ocean.
Pennsylvania Sen. Robert P. Casey and Rep. Robert A. Brady, both Democrats, said they had learned of the decision, which was to be made public Monday.
Deepening the channel from 40 to 45 feet would put the Philadelphia port in line with other major East Coast ports. The Port of New York will be deepened to 50 feet.
Obama's decision is the second welcome news in a week for the port. On Tuesday, the Army Corps of Engineers said it would provide $16.9 million this year to deepen a 15-mile stretch of the Delaware between Penn's Landing and Essington, starting in early August.
The $31 million, for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, would be used to blast rock in the river near Marcus Hook, one of the costliest parts of the project.
Deepening the channel has been debated for nearly three decades, and is staunchly opposed by some environmental groups and New Jersey, both of which sued to stop it. A federal judge in Trenton rejected their arguments, and the case is on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia.
A U.S. district judge in Wilmington rejected a parallel lawsuit in Delaware, and the project began in March 2010.
A combined effort by Delaware and Pennsylvania helped move the project forward.
Gov. Corbett in September freed up $15 million to continue the project. Originally, New Jersey was to be the local project sponsor, but the state balked. Former Gov. Ed Rendell said Pennsylvania would take the role. Pennsylvania has spent about $40 million on dredging work.
Supporters say a deeper channel would allow bigger ships that are expected to come to the East Coast from Asia once the Panama Canal is expanded in 2014.
"We're going to get this thing finally done," Brady said. "I met with the vice president three times, and we talked on the phone I don't know how many times."
"I knew about this two weeks ago, but we couldn't make it public until it was in the president's budget, and it is," Brady said.
Securing the $16.9 million and now the $31 million "is really significant," Casey said. "The economic-development potential that this creates for the region - Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware - comes down to one word: commerce. We can move a lot more goods into the Delaware Valley. Bigger ships mean more commerce."
Casey, along with Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), and Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.), worked on an amendment to an energy and water bill to shift already appropriated money for navigation construction. That led to $16.9 million in the Army Corps' 2012 work plan.
Charles Kopp, chairman of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, said the money "sends a clear and strong signal to the global shipping community" that the port will be ready to receive larger ships and will be open for business for years to come.
But Delaware Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum has said the deepening is "an economic loser, unnecessary for the ports, and inflicts major environmental and community harm."
"This is blood money," Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said last week. "They are taking money from the taxpayers to try to destroy our river and estuary," he said.
Environmentalists are also concerned about potential damage to Atlantic sturgeon.
Army Corps spokesman Ed Voigt said the agency had already implemented recommendations of the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect the sturgeon.
The president's budget is the first step in securing federal funding, and not the final appropriation. "Historically, when projects are in the president's budget, they tend to stay there. The numbers might go up or down" but "the odds of the funding staying there is much better," Voigt said.