WASHINGTON – The Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to indefinitely postpone the proposed deepening of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal was celebrated Tuesday as the death knell of a project that consumed “$10 million and 10 years of study.”
Opponents also said they hoped the decision on the C&D Canal marks the start of a new era of stricter oversight of all such projects.
But supporters, led by the Maryland Port Administration, said they were pleased to see that the project had been deferred instead of killed outright, saying the delay gives them a chance to make a better case on why the canal should be deepened.
The decision by the corps’ Philadelphia District is the latest and possibly last chapter in the 10-year effort to deepen the C&D Canal, a critical 14-mile link in the 60-mile shipping channel between the Delaware River and Baltimore via the upper Chesapeake Bay.
The plan would have deepened the canal from 35 feet to 40 feet, in an effort to keep the Port of Baltimore competitive with other ports on the Eastern Seaboard.
While opponents attacked the plan on both environmental and economic grounds, it was the latter that prompted the corps to review and reverse its findings.
The corps now agrees with economic criticism of the project, reversing itself from a 1996 feasibility study that concluded that the project would have returned more than a dollar in economic gain for every dollar spent on it. That study also claimed that the project could be done in an environmentally sound way.
Ed Voigt, spokesman for the corps’ Philadelphia District, said the decision to shelve the project “was based on economics.”
“What is relevant is the economics (of shipping) in the last few years,” Voigt said. “The port is actually experiencing some increase in overall ship traffic, but container traffic is declining and such traffic is critical to determining whether the canal deepening project is justified.”
Critics hailed the corps’ decision.
“Build it and they will come’ has been the mantra of the MPA (Maryland Port Administration) and their corps partners,” said the C&D Canal League in a Monday press release. “In hindsight and in reality they have not come.”
The port administration, which runs the public shipping terminals of the Port of Baltimore, acknowledges a “short-term” drop-off in container shipping traffic. But officials there said they were pleased to see the project deferred for the next three to six years, as opposed to killed it outright.
Port spokeswoman Kate Philips said that recent trends in container ship traffic have begun to show an increase.
“We believe that containerized shipping is on the rise in the long-term,” Philips said. “From the second half of 1999 to the second half of 2000, there was an 11 percent increase in containerized shipping by volume on ships.”
The decision to defer the project was requested by Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari in a Jan. 16 letter to the corps’ Philadelphia office. Porcari’s department oversees the port administration.
But an aide to Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, a leading opponent of the project, dismissed the deferral as “a face-saving measure.”
“They were faced with the imminent prospect of having this project denied,” said Tony Caligiuri, Gilchrest’s chief of staff. “I think all observers agreed that this project was about to be turned down because there was no economic justification.”
“We consider this project dead after $10 million and 10 years of study,” Caligiuri added. “We think the project and the Corps of Engineers have lost credibility to the point where this could not seriously be brought back up for consideration.”
Critics said it was only through their grass-roots efforts that the original feasibility study was shown to be “deeply flawed.”
“The deeper we looked into this feasibility study, the more errors we found,” said Richard Noennich, a Cecil County resident and retired DuPont worker, who is a member of the C&D Canal League. He said that members of his group had first become involved on environmental grounds, “but we found out that the economic justification was flawed, too.”
He and three other county residents made their case to the governor, the corps’ Philadelphia and Washington offices and to the state’s congressional delegation. Noennich said only Gilchrest sided with them.
“I can’t say enough good things about Rep. Gilchrest and his staff,” Noennich said. “He has restored my faith in government.”
The C&D Canal project had also came under fire earlier this month from the Environmental Protection Agency, which said it would review any economic justifications provided to it by the corps before signing off on the plan’s environmental soundness.