If you ask about improving the harbor you usually hear two things: Dredging is key, and don’t get your hopes up, it’s expensive. Suddenly this past Thursday those hopes went up, like a rocket. It was a dramatic 18 hours, with the news going from interesting to encouraging to celebratory.
At 4 p.m. Thursday U.S. Rep. Bill Keating, D-Bourne, told the Old Colony Memorial that both the House and the Senate were close to passing an appropriation bill that could include millions for the dredging of Plymouth Harbor by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The harbor has become more and more important for Plymouth in the last decade with the completion of the new T-Wharf, the establishment of a thriving aquaculture industry and the continued economic importance of the local lobster fleet.
"Dredging is the first thought that comes to mind," Town Manager Melissa Arrighi said two years ago about future special projects.
"That's because dredging could affect so many other aspects of Plymouth Harbor, where resources are already being spent on the state boat launch, to renovate the long-neglected T-Wharf, where Cordage Park is finally moving."
"And then there's the issue of larger ships – including Mayflower II – which either cannot utilize the harbor or do so at risk to their hulls because the areas around the piers have not been dredged for years," Arrighi said.
Harbormaster Chad Hunter agreed.
"Dredging is probably our number 1 priority," Hunter said last year as the town's first-ever harbor plan was nearing completion, "but it's costly and we're not going to get it done immediately."
But "immediately" was what Keating has in mind.
Thursday Keating said that he had inserted language in appropriations legislation that would greatly enhance the likelihood that Plymouth could see the harbor dredged in time for the 2020 commemoration.
Keating said he was establishing "pressure points."
The first was all about the timing. Keating inserted an amendment to the Army Corps authorization bill (and different language in the energy and water bill) that would direct the Corps to complete any dredging work in the harbor in time for the 2020 commemoration.
They would not only have to begin the work, they'd have to complete it before the party started.
Keating noted that similar language was included in the Senate version of the bill supported by Senators Markey and Warren.
Secondly, Keating addressed the concern that Plymouth Harbor might be on the list of projects for the next fiscal year but never attain a high enough priority to receive funding.
"There is no earmarking in House bills," Keating explained, "so I offered an amendment that directs the ACOE to consider historic and nationally significant projects when they are prioritizing.
"That helps ensure that the money will be there," he said.
Keating was adamant that this harbor project was both historic in nature and nationally significant; it was central to the overall efforts to commemorate Plymouth's historic anniversary in 2020.
"In my view, it is vital that we accomplish this work now," Keating said. "Not being able to accommodate the Mayflower II and other larger ships in Plymouth Harbor would be a great disappointment, and in the long term this will also improve the overall economic viability of the harbor."
Later that evening Keating excitedly updated the status of his efforts, saying that the funds for the project, included in the massive energy and water project bill, might be approved as early as this Monday and that in his words, "We're on the list!"
At that point, Keating was optimistic but guarded. But there were no other signs that good news was coming.
U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass, announced Thursday that he would be in Plymouth Friday, accompanied by Army Corps of Engineering the Assistant Secretary R.D. "Ricky" James, "to hear a presentation from the Army Corps of Engineers on dredging the harbor."
Keating filled in more of the moving parts Friday morning.
"The money is there," Keating said. "It will be released, $14 million in two installments as I understand it. It's not official, that announcement will likely be made Monday, but I am confident."
So confident that Keating offered thanks to his colleagues in Washington for their work, and to Plymouth officials and Plymouth 400 Committee members.
"We have been working on this from the beginning with the 400 Committee, and with the harbormaster and town officials," Keating said. "Everyone did such a great job. We were even able to work through a change at the top of the Army Corps of Engineers.
"This is a project that I felt had to be done and done now. A must do, and I am both elated and relieved to have this accomplished."
It's official. Hopes are up.
(This article originally appeared in the Patriot Ledger)