The color-coded depth maps of the navigation channel lined each the top of table – each map in front of a stakeholder who wanted the same thing as the person in the next seat.
The Corps of Engineers map wasn’t necessary for Chad Saunders.
He knew the depths. And he knew what was needed.
“My company needs more. The town of Cape Charles needs more.”
In the 1880’s, William Scott – something of a town visionary – dug a harbor out of Mud Creek and brought the railroad to the small town of Cape Charles at the “dead end” of the peninsula. It became an artery for commerce and at its height in the 1920s, the railroad brought 200,000 cars into the town. Cape Charles moved all of them across the Chesapeake Bay that year, which meant a barge left from that harbor every hour, every day.
Today, Cape Charles is a small hamlet of 1,009 people and its long, shallow beaches are the only public beach on the west side of the Eastern Shore. Its channel, an angled navigation path that extends from the old harbor into the Chesapeake Bay, is a lifeline for Bay Shore Concrete, the city’s major employer: “Products get in, get out and stay out” said Saunders, the company’s general manager.
The channel, while a life-line, is simultaneously beginning to strangle the community.
“Now, there are things in the water that the guys in the 1800s didn’t think of,” said Tom Bonadeo, Cape Charles’ city planner.
The channel, which was last dredged in 1988, can’t support newer, larger vessels or the larger, pre-fabricated pieces customers demand from companies like Bay Shore Concrete. Over the years, this translated into lost jobs and lost opportunities for the company and Cape Charles.
“Bay Shore had the know-how, the locality and ability to build the future mid-town tunnel expansion,” Saunders said. “What we didn’t have was the channel depth, which meant we lost out on the $20 million contract for work.”
The channel, as it exists, is at a depth of 18 feet, which is sufficient for all traffic except for Bay Shore Concrete. The town, as well as Bay Shore Concrete, say it’s not enough to keep the town going.
Cape Charles illustrates the Section 107 process executed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
The Continuing Authorities Program (CAP) section 107 process involves justifying the need for dredging a deeper channel. With the federal government’s financial obligation of up to $7 million, which covers the cost of a feasibility study and the design and dredging itself, there is no room for “maybes.”
“This is taxpayer money that will be used to fund the study and the dredging,” said Kristin Mazur, a Norfolk District project manager. “We have to be sure that it’s worth the investment of time and resources.”
The Norfolk District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers met with Cape Charles stakeholders recently to exact the need for the dredging.
Mazur said it’s one of the most challenging parts of the process: meeting with stakeholders, explaining the federal process, which pitches a steep learning curve to the uninitiated. The goal is information – the kind that will justify dredging.
At the meeting, stakeholders offered their relative justifications for dredging to the district’s team of economists, technical team members and project manager.
“There are educational barges that could stop here …” a town representative began to offer.
Mazur, leaning over the table, shook her head.
“That’s recreational use,” she said. “That use has almost no impact on receiving funding for the project.”
Another stakeholder offered the future potential of more businesses coming to Cape Charles.
Mazur shook her head again.
“We can’t do it on an ‘if-we-build-it-they-will-come basis.’”
Despite limitations, there are benefits to the CAP process: it’s money from the federal government. And the CAP process is shorter – a few years - compared to a general investigation process for direct congressional funding, which can take up to 10 years. CAP streamlines the process for smaller projects each year, as Congress designates a pot of money for “authorities” under the program.
However, projects and potential projects are competing for limited funds in the pot of money for CAP. Additionally, the project has to show a benefit to the nation, not just the locality requesting the project.
The Cape Charles stakeholders at the table, ranging from railroad representatives to the Coast Guard to local employers, were making their best case for the federal money to dredge.
“We need to see lost use, or business that was specifically lost because you didn’t have the depth,” said Jennifer Spencer, Norfolk District economist. “We need to see if there’s an increased transportation cost because goods need to be shipped elsewhere.”
The town of Cape Charles believes dredging will open doors: Virginia’s off-shore wind energy, the concrete company’s ability to produce gravity foundations for the wind turbines, as well as the channel’s depth to accommodate rocket parts for Wallops Island would all depend on the greater depth Cape Charles seeks.
“We don’t want to be limited to barge traffic for the rest of our lives,” said Bonadeo. “There’s not a lot of growth in that.”
Cost estimates for dredging, while not accurate before a complete feasibility study, are at about $35 million to dredge to 35 feet desired by the town. That means the locality, Cape Charles, would need to come up with the difference after the federal government reaches the end of its $7 million initial investment.
In the end, it will come down to what the Corps calls the “Three E’s” – the project can only go forward if it’s environmentally acceptable, engineeringly feasible and economically justified.
“There’s potential here,” Bonadeo said. “I just want to see it happen for us.”