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Panel continues deliberations on Delaware port expansion

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Associated Press

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Expanding port operations in Delaware, whether at the existing Port of Wilmington or at one of a handful of other possible sites, is going to be a costly proposition, a state task force was told Wednesday.

“At the end of the day, the issue is having someone finance this,” Wilmington port director Gene Bailey told the panel, noting that previous discussions about expanding the port’s operations carried a price tag of more than half a billion dollars. The panel is weighing various expansion scenarios.

Brad Winfree, a consultant working with the International Longshoremen’s Association on the feasibility of building a container cargo facility south of the existing port, said investors will have be convinced that the project is “bankable” before entering into the proposed public-private partnership that his group envisions.

The first step, Winfree said, is an environmental assessment of the proposed site in the Riveredge Industrial Park, on the other side of the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

Task force co-chair Sen. Margaret Rose Henry agreed.

“No one’s going to put up money until that’s done,” said Henry, D-Wilmington. “To us, that’s step number one to try to move things forward.”

The task force received outlines of possible expansion opportunities at the existing port and at the Riveredge site. The former Evraz steel mill plant in Claymont and the DuPont Hay Road site also have been mentioned as possible areas for a port facility.

Delaware and other East Coast states are eyeing the potential for more port business as work nears completion on a Panama Canal expansion that will allow larger container ships to pass through and require modern, deep-water terminal facilities to accommodate them.

“We’re in a very competitive industry,” Bailey noted, citing projects planned or under way at ports farther up the Delaware River in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

One advantage for Wilmington is that it is the first major port on the river, about four hours from the Atlantic Ocean, Bailey noted.

“We can save ships six hours,” he said.

Winfree, meanwhile, noted that one of advantages of the Riveredge site is that vessel operators wouldn’t have to worry about overhead clearance, or “air draft” while passing under the bridge.

“The ship has to fit under a bridge, and ships are growing larger and larger… As long as you’re stopped at the bridge, you’re not going to have to worry about air drafts in the future.”

State Finance Secretary Tom Cook, vice chairman of the board that oversees the Wilmington port, said officials have received four responses to a request for qualifications from consultants interested in conducting a long-term strategic study of port operations in Delaware.

Officials have said the study will look not only at maximizing the existing port’s current facilities, but at the feasibility of acquiring an adjacent former landfill property at Pigeon Point — and of building on one of the other proposed sites along the Delaware River.

Cook said the consultants will be evaluated by a committee of the Diamond State Port Corporation board, which will make a recommendation for consideration by the full board at its Oct. 20 meeting.

A preliminary study could be completed by the spring.

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