Packer Avenue Marine Terminal
6 June 2007 |
A couple of weeks ago, Governor Rendell announced that a deal had been struck to allow the Delaware River estuary to be dredged — from the existing 40 foot depth to 45 feet. This is of course dangerous business. Although the shipping channel is now regularly dredged to maintain the 40 foot depth, a project of this size — the literal churning up of toxic compounds that now lie dormant — will cause at least short-term damage to certain fish and shellfish and bird species and possibly threaten water supplies. The project’s economic validity has also been challenged and the project’s federal sponsor, the Army Corps of Engineers, was forced in 2002 to prove its economic justification: a slew of high-qualified experts said, yes, deepening was a good investment. Nevertheless, we all know that numbers can be used to project or prove just about anything.
Whether or not the project makes good economic or environmental sense remains to be seen; however we do know a couple of things: the lower Delaware is as healthy now as it has been in the past 50 years. Sometime in the late 40s, according to Steve Conn’s terrific book Metropolitan Philadelphia, the river died. Happily the death of industry in the workshop of the world allowed the river to recover — and now, though it is maintenance-dredged every year, wildlife and marine species, including the feted shad, are on their way back. Second, we know that the Port is on the upswing, containerized cargo tonnage up 14% last year, for example. The folks that run the place are in the unique position of being entrepreneurial, aggressive bureaucrats and right now they’re drumming up business wherever they can find it. Philly is the largest importer of Chilean and other South American fruit, and has huge business in cocoa beans, clementines, paper products, and meat and other food from the South Pacific. Lines to Europe have opened — and ones to the Far East are on the way. All those ugly warehouses and some of the great old white stone finger-piers are filled with products. Peak in on your way to the Ikea.
All that said, Ed Rendell is pretty crafty when he decides how to throw around money and political capital and so last month’s announcement should be read as a message. I recall the terrible uproar over the building of the convention center — clearly it was a lousy bang for the buck, a waste of public money, a gift to unions and big contractors. While all that may be true, Rendell’s support for the Convention Center (which he didn’t build but took credit for finishing) and subsequent investment in hotels was almost purely symbolic. It was a message, an act of faith, a sign. Billions upon billions in public and private investment have followed. Would it have happened without Ed’s initial “shot in the arm?” Hard to say exactly, but Ed’s dollars were the first in. So it is now with the Port, which has hopes to expand north and south of Packer Avenue (south onto “Southport,” really that gorgeous tip of the Navy Yard, arguably the best waterfront land in Philadelphia and recently home to an Eagle’s nest). Ed’s got early money in on this one and the agreement to dredge is meant as a sign to the shipping industry that Philly’s for real: invest, bring your steamship lines, come and see how nimble our longshoremen can be. Moreover, there’s $300 million in infrastructure upgrades in the package, not much to build anything ambitious but enough to send a signal.
B. Love and I visited Packer Avenue Marine Terminal Wednesday morning with Port’s Director of Communications, Joe Menta. We had a good time, chatting about breakbulk cargoes and container cranes and ships that must wait for high tide. We smiled at the security officers. We stood under the Walt Whitman Bridge. Longshoremen worked — unloading mystery containers from the Hamburg-Süd ship and steel off another. Steel in a temporary warehouse was being loaded on to CSX freight cars. It was a powerful contemporary industrial scene, as you can see.