Bigger ships and more cargo flowing through the ports of Philadelphia and South Jersey should mean more jobs and greater economic activity when the Delaware River deepening project is completed next year. But the benefits may not be a slam-dunk for the region as expected.

Fierce competition from other East Coast ports for an expected trade bonanza resulting from the widening of the Panama Canal means that the $392-million project to dredge another five feet of mud and rock from the bottom of the river near Philadelphia does not automatically mean that more ships will call at the local ports, experts said.

What’s more, environmentalists warn that the dredging project will harm the health of the river and will likely bring saltwater closer to Philadelphia’s drinking water intakes.

Even to reap the expected benefits of the long-delayed project—now six years into the dredging phase and 24 years since its first funding was appropriated by Congress—ports on both sides of the river will have to play to their strengths.

The Delaware project comes at a time that nearby competitors such as the ports of New York and New Jersey, Baltimore and Norfolk have also deepened their shipping channels to allow access by new mega-ships—laden with goods from Asia—that will soon be passing through the Panama Canal.

“There is a veritable arms race going on,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. “Not just the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic, but the entire Atlantic coast from Miami to Boston. They are effectively competing faster than the pie is growing.”

Continue reading this story at StateImpact Pennsylvania »

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Jon Hurdle also contributed to this report. This story comes from our content partner StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration between WITF and WHYY covering the fiscal and environmental impact of Pennsylvania’s booming energy economy.