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By Hugh R. Morley, The Record, Hackensack, N.J. Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 6--Twelve hours a day, Mac Oldham sits in a glass-walled cockpit suspended 20 feet above the frigid waters of the Hudson River, helping shape the economic future of the New York region.
Studying a colored map on a computer monitor to his left, he grips a joystick topped with buttons in each hand as though playing a video game.
He shifts his right hand and a massive mechanical arm in front of him plunges into the freezing green river. Another shift and the 15-foot high claw at the end of the arm tears into the river bed sending a violent shudder through Oldham's rig.
One more shift, a touch on the left-hand joystick, and the claw scoops up 17 tons of silt, rock, sand and water from the river bottom and dumps it into an adjacent rusting iron barge.
The scoop -- which takes place every 39 seconds on a good day -- is the leading edge of a massive dredging project that authorities say is key to giving New York and New Jersey ports a competitive edge for decades to come.
The 12-year, two-phase project will widen and deepen port navigation channels off Newark, Elizabeth and Brooklyn, making them accessible to the world's largest ships.
Though the price tag for the job is a whopping $1.63 billion, experts say the cost of not dredging would be higher: as global trade booms, the ships would go elsewhere, …