A House committee vote on legislation that would scrap funds for a dredging project favored by the port of Baltimore was postponed yesterday, giving state transportation officials more time to lobby lawmakers against the provision.
The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee delayed action on the Water Resources Development Act of 2000 so that committee leadership could resolve differences over several key provisions in the bill.
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a longtime foe of plans to deepen the port's northern approach through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, said Wednesday that he would offer an amendment to the bill aimed at putting an end to several years of study and debate over the project.
The Maryland Republican also said he will ask members of the committee to cancel funds for a plan to straighten the Chesapeake Bay's S-shaped Tolchester Channel, which leads to the canal. State officials have sought the straightening as a safety measure.
Gilchrest and other dredging critics say both projects are environmentally risky and too expensive, given the canal's limited and declining use.
Though the vast majority of ships calling on Baltimore use the much deeper Chesapeake Bay channel to the south, port officials have long argued that deepening the C&D; canal is vital to efforts to retain its container cargo business and entice shipping lines back to the port.
The C&D; project was authorized in the Water Resources Development Act of 1996 and awaits funds. The Tolchester straightening project was authorized last year and has already received partial financing.
State officials kept up their assault on Gilchrest's proposal yesterday, saying his amendment would jeopardize jobs and safety in the port.
Richard C. Mike Lewin, secretary of the state Department of Business and Economic Development, accused Gilchrest of being indifferent to the state's economy.
"I think it shows him to be a man of utterly limited vision," Lewin said. "He doesn't seem to care about the economy of the state and he's either unaware or totally calloused to the economy of his own district."
Project in jeopardy?
In addition to risking current business, Lewin said Gilchrest's proposal would hurt the port's efforts to convince Evergreen Lines to consolidate its East Coast business in Baltimore, rather than in Norfolk, Va.
Evergreen is one of the last major steamship lines that still calls at the port. Company officials have said publicly that deepening the C&D; canal is critical to its operations.
Deepening the canal to 40 feet from its current 35 feet would allow larger ships to use the waterway as a shortcut to the port of Baltimore. The port's distance from the ocean is one reason ship lines have gradually left the port in recent years.
Evergreen officials have outlined their concerns about the canal in meetings with state transportation and economic development officials.
However, Gilchrest cited a 1999 Army Corps of Engineers report that failed to find a single shipping line that said it would leave the port solely over the issue of deepening the C&D; canal.
The corps' Philadelphia district is currently studying whether the economic benefits of the project warrant federal financing, a test critics say the project is unlikely to pass.
"I think we want to ensure the economic health and viability of the port of Baltimore, but you don't do that by pushing through a project that has no merit," Gilchrest said.
The water resources bill was scheduled for markup in subcommittee Wednesday morning, followed by a vote of the full transportation committee in the afternoon.
However, Rep. Bud Shuster, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the committee, and ranking Democrat Rep. James L. Oberstar, of Minnesota, were unable to resolve differences over a laundry list of provisions in the bill in time for the vote to proceed.
"We could get it resolved this afternoon, or this could drag on for a while," said Scott Brenner, Shuster's press secretary.