The Daily Times
SALISBURY, Md. (AP) -- It's a sobering threat to the future of business in Wicomico County: the end of federal dredging of the Wicomico River.
For decades, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has invested millions of dollars in the river's upkeep.
Without it, the river would get choked with silt in a matter of years. Only the most modest of vessels would be left to navigate its waters, and several businesses and hundreds of jobs would find themselves in serious jeopardy.
The stream of federal aid is at risk of running dry if the amount of freight hauled on the river drops below a five-year average of 1 million tons a year.
The future is now -- the river's users have failed to reach 1 million tons for three out of the past five years. Fearing the worst, several county leaders say something must be done to reverse the trend or Maryland's second-largest port could be forced to close.
That something, they suggest, is a new county-run port.
"We've talked for as long as I've been here how great an asset the port is, and what have we done for it over the last 20 years?" asked County Administrator Wayne Strausburg at a recent public hearing before the County Council. "There needs to be some vision."
The plan outlined by Strausburg and Public Works Director Lee Beauchamp at that time was little more than a sketch: The county would acquire land in the industrial area on the north end of the river and lease port space to businesses that otherwise couldn't afford to build a port of their own.
Cost hasn't been discussed, but it almost certainly require local officials to pony up millions of dollars even after accounting for state and federal grants.
The county made its first substantial investment in May, with the County Council setting aside $26,500 toward hiring a consultant. The Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development is chipping in a matching amount.
Martin Associates is expected to use that money to draw up a strategic plan. It has written similar plans for several other ports, including the Port of Baltimore.
It's likely going to take 10 weeks for the consultant to finish the report once it gets started and multiple years before a port gets built, if the project gets that far. But the early reviews, particularly from businesses, are enthusiastic.
Tim Emge is vice president of terminal operations for Cato Gas & Oil, which barges petroleum products up the river. He also serves on the board of directors of Delmarva Water Transport Committee, a 40-year-old nonprofit that is the closest thing the river has to a port authority.
A new county port would have little effect on Cato's operations, but he said he supports anything that helps assure the future of river navigation.
"This could be a prime hub still and continue to be for prime materials like sand to be shipped out of Salisbury, instead of stuff always coming in," Emge said.
The vast majority of the river's freight consists of imports: chicken feed for Perdue Farms, Cato's oil and gas, Vulcan Materials' stone construction material. Of that, Cato's haul accounts for more than half.
Much of the drop in freight can be attributed to the plummeting demand for construction materials and lower fuel consumption, county officials say.
The region doesn't export much, but it might if the port was expanded, county officials said in a report. Wicomico ships 2.5 million tons of freight a year to other port regions by truck, it said.
Transporting goods by boat presents a savings to businesses and consumers, Emge said. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that a barge can haul a ton of freight 514 miles on 1 gallon of gas. That gallon can only take a train 202 miles and a truck 59 miles.
One petroleum-hauling barge has the carrying capacity of 150 large trucks, Emge said. In a typical year, the port strips 123,000 trucks off local roadways, officials estimate.
A Salisbury University study found that a county port would expand the region's economy 5 percent to 10 percent within the first five years of full-scale operations. In Wicomico alone, it would create 2,000 to 5,000 jobs that would pay at or above the area median income, economists said.
County officials envision other perks. The new port could be accompanied by a new industrial park, which would be powered by electricity generated by a waste-to-energy plant that's also in the works. And if that weren't synergistic enough, the plant's waste-processing component could transport materials through the port as well, officials say.
The only potential tenant of the port identified specifically by county officials is Salisbury-based poultry giant Perdue Farms. The company ships grain via the river to a facility that lies just north of downtown Salisbury.
Getting there, however, requires two drawbridges on West Main Street and business U.S. 50 to be raised.
The resulting backups have been a headache for drivers for decades. And the location limits the size of the barges Perdue can use.
The county port proposal may be worth exploring, a Perdue spokeswoman said.
"I think we're certainly willing to work with them on that sort of proposal," Julie DeYoung said.
Some county leaders say it would make sense for the city of Salisbury to get involved in the project, since much of the existing port facility lie within its boundaries. For his part, the mayor said the port expansion is "an exciting prospect."
"We are in support of expanding the Port of Salisbury," Jim Ireton said, adding that a location along Marine Road would need to be annexed into the city to be served by water and sewer lines.
Whatever happens going forward will be set against an ominous economic backdrop.
The Army Corps maintains a 14-foot-deep by 150-foot-wide channel down the length of the river to the Chesapeake Bay.
The river is designated by the Army Corps as a "moderate-use" channel. If the total freight dips below 1 million tons a year for a substantial amount of time, it could slip a level to "low-use," said Andrea Takash, a corps spokeswoman.
Such projects haven't received funding in years because of budgeting constraints, she said.
"It's a national program," Takash added. "The Corps of Engineers has to look at it from a national priority."
Falling below 1 million tons won't automatically trigger a lower designation, she said. The agency will remain in communication with the county to receive the context behind the numbers.
Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., http://www.delmarvanow.com/
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
for more features.