Even proponents of beach replenishment, as we are, have to cringe at how the process works.

Most beach-fill work is done by pipeline dredges. Contractions and mergers in the dredging industry have left exactly three pipeline-dredging companies on the East Coast. That is not a particularly competitive environment.

As a result, the price that these companies charge to "mobilize" a dredge - that is, to get the dredge and related equipment from one site to another - has skyrocketed over the past 20 years, according to a Press Watchdog Report by staff writer Michael Miller.

In 1992, Cape May received a low bid of $230,000 to get a dredging rig in place. Last year, Weeks Marine wanted $5.9 million to send its dredge to Ocean City. Great Lakes Dredge and Dock won the contract with a $3.5 million mobilization bid.

Certainly, moving an oceangoing dredge and related equipment is a big, expensive job dependent on the weather, sea conditions and how far you have to move it. But the lack of competition is troubling.

The Army Corps of Engineers pays 65 percent of the cost of beach-fill projects. The state pays 75 percent of the rest, with municipalities picking up the remainder. Ultimately, of course, it is taxpayers who pay for it all.

Critics may seize on this lack of competition as one more reason to abandon beach-fill projects. But when beaches are replenished to protect the tourism jobs and shore economy they create, the expense is necessary, in our opinion. However, a little more competition in the industry sure would be helpful.

Surf City Mayor Leonard Connors Jr. has long championed the idea of New Jersey buying its own dredge. "They paint the George Washington Bridge from one end to the other. When they're done, they start all over," Connors said. "That's how I felt they should be dredging in New Jersey. You could have a smaller dredge doing constant maintenance on the beaches."

We like the analogy and the idea - but it will never happen. New Jersey is not about to go into the dredging business.

But there are at least two things the Army Corps, the state and municipalities can do to hold down dredging costs.

One is to consolidate jobs in nearby towns and bid cooperatively to save on mobilization costs. That makes sense and, in fact, is already being done.

Then there is this: Government officials should realize that while there may be only a handful of companies selling dredging services, there is only one buyer, for the most part - government. So bargain accordingly.

Surely the dredging companies must realize that if they keep driving up the mobilization costs, beach replenishment will become that much harder to sell to taxpayers.

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