NEW YORK -- The 1,400-foot concrete pier juts from a rocky construction site into the gentle tide off Staten Island, a barren outpost awaiting a half-dozen warships that would be anchored against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline.
"I've fought for all these years to bring this home port here," said Staten Island Borough President Guy V. Molinari (R), a former member of Congress, as he surveyed the scene. "It's been a long, hard grind."
But now, after the federal government has poured more than $130 million into this newly dredged port near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, even Molinari admits that the project is close to being swept away by shifting political currents.
Mayor David N. Dinkins (D) has assailed the port as "the very definition of waste in government." The battleship USS Iowa had been destined for New York Harbor but instead is to be mothballed as part of a shrinking military budget. The collapse of communism around the globe has made Staten Island, and five other surviving home ports, a tempting budget target, too.
"Staten Island is dead meat," said one congressional official examining the program.
In the murky waters of New York politics, however, no project can be sunk without a protracted battle. One Republican member of Congress has threatened to retaliate by blocking other New York City projects in Washington. Other home port supporters struck back last week by recruiting hundreds of union members and veterans for a rally at City Hall.
The Staten Island port was launched in 1983 as part of a politically savvy plan by then-Navy secretary John Lehman to disperse the fleet to 13 new ports nationwide. After intense lobbying by key figures in the New York congressional delegation, Staten Island beat out competing bids from Boston and Rhode Island. Lehman joined then-mayor Edward I. Koch (D) on the deck of a retired aircraft carrier to announce the selection.
It was a juicy plum. Staten Island was to be home to the USS Iowa and a flotilla of support ships, along with 4,500 Navy employees and 1,200 new housing units. Federal construction costs were expected to total $300 million.
There were protests, arrests and litigation along the way. A small band of activists, known as the Coalition for a Nuclear-Free Harbor, focused on the widespread assumption that the ships would carry nuclear weapons, although the Navy refuses to confirm or deny this as a matter of policy. The group contended that a nuclear mishap would pose unacceptable risks in such a densely populated area.
Opponents said the danger was underscored by the gun-turret explosion on the USS Iowa last year in which 47 sailors died. Still, the Navy kept working toward a scheduled opening this fall. Initial construction, not including housing and other improvements, is about three-fourths complete.
"A year and a half ago, things looked kind of grim," coalition spokesman Tom DeLuca said. "We certainly didn't predict the Berlin Wall would come down and other dramatic changes that would undercut the rationale for increased military spending."
In an era of military austerity, only two of the six remaining home ports are expected to survive. Navy officials have placed Staten Island on a list of facilities that may be scrapped, along with home ports in Pascagoula, Miss.; Mobile, Ala.; Ingleside, Tex., and Everett, Wash. Only the Pensacola, Fla., port did not make the hit list.
While Koch championed the Staten Island port, Dinkins attacked it during last fall's mayoral campaign. At a House hearing in April, Dinkins denounced the idea of "sailing a potential Chernobyl into New York Harbor."
Molinari called the comment "totally irresponsible" but conceded that Dinkins's stance, along with opposition by 11 of the 14 House members from New York City, had dealt the project a major blow.
"I can't understand how a mayor could be fighting to kill the home port when most communities knock themselves out because they know the financial benefits," Molinari said. "The Navy says, why should we keep open a base in Staten Island when other communities are begging us to come?"
Dinkins's testimony also drew criticism from Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.), who said the mayor had "made a fool of himself" and vowed that "I'm not going to let him get away with it." Noting his position on the House Rules Committee, Solomon said: "There is retaliation, and I for one am not going to turn the other cheek. He may want pet projects, and we may steer it the other way."
The construction cranes along Staten Island's eastern shore are oblivious to the debate in Washington. Amid the rubble, a modern brick building the length of two football fields has just been completed for maintenance and repair of Navy ships that may never arrive. Merchants along Bay Street, where several storefronts are vacant, still hope for a boost from the cruiser, three destroyers and two frigates slated for the port.
While supporters and detractors offer wildly differing estimates of the potential economic impact, there is little question that, with the Brooklyn Navy Yard scheduled to close, the home port is the city's last chance for a significant slice of the defense budget.
Proponents say that finding another use for the port would be difficult and that the city legally would be obligated to repay the Defense Department for the improvements. They say the government is spending $70 million to buy 425 houses near the port and has signed contracts for construction of another 1,200 apartments, which would cost $19 million a year to rent.
But others say such statistics are a compelling reason to bail out now. "If politics weren't involved, this thing would've been dead already," said Rep. Ted Weiss (D-N.Y.), a longtime opponent of the port.
"It was really John Lehman's way, not of building a strong Navy, but of building a strong political base for the Navy. Whatever military or strategic justification it once had has gone out the window."