- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 9, 2015

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) - Plans to conduct a long-term strategic study for the Port of Wilmington are dovetailing the work of a task force formed studying the feasibility of expanding port operations in Delaware.

The task force, which met for the first time Wednesday, is awaiting responses from consulting firms interested in conducting the study. The responses are due Sept. 23, one week before the next meeting of the task force.

Secretary of State Jeffrey Bullock, a task force member who also chairs the port’s governing board, said the study will look at maximizing the port’s current facilities, the feasibility of acquiring an adjacent former landfill property at Pigeon Point and building a container facility along the Delaware River. A preliminary study could be completed by the spring.

“We can build on the work the port has already begun. … That’s really a good path forward,” said task force co-chair Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington.

Unions representing longshoremen are pressing for a container facility on the Delaware River south of the existing port at Riveredge Industrial Park, which sits on privately owned land in New Castle near the Delaware Memorial Bridge. A former steel mill property farther north in Claymont also is being considered as a potential site for a container port.

William Ashe Jr., president of Local 1694 of the International Longshoremen’s Association, said Riveredge should be a top priority for expansion, arguing that it is a “shovel ready” site that could get the necessary state and federal permits and be running within two years.

“Why do we need to drag out something?” Ashe said.

But Bullock and others say any decision on expanding port operations should be carefully considered and carries with it a host of issues, including environmental permitting, legal issues, infrastructure capacity, traffic impact, construction costs and financing for a project that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

“We can rush ourselves into a no-win situation,” said Mike Evanko, president of Port Contractors Inc., a company that provides marine and material handling services.

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 transit of larger container ships to pass through and require modern, deep-water terminal facilities to accommodate them. But Bullock noted that the larger ships also could off-load cargo onto smaller vessels for transport to the final destination.

Bullock said it is critical to maximize the use of the existing port, where most of the berths currently are situated along the Christina River. But he agrees that deeper water berths along the larger Delaware River are key to the long-term success of port operations in Delaware.

“Our longer term is not on our existing footprint,” he said. “Our longer term is on the Delaware River. Hopefully, we can work together to pull that off.”

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