Port of Gall
Sunday, August 22nd, 2010
So many outrageous things have gone on for so long at the Delaware River Port Authority that it’s hard not to dream of just blowing the place up. But in his Centre Square commentary today, Chris Satullo argues that using bridge tolls to fund economic development is not really as bad an idea as the DRPA sometimes makes it seem.
I'm going to argue uphill today.
The good citizens of the Delaware Valley seem agreed: It's high time to shut down the regional ATM machine for greedy politicians long operated by the Delaware River Port Authority.
For years, the DRPA has fed bridge tolls and PATCO fares into a slush fund controlled by a few, mostly Democratic pols.
This DRPA cash machine was always open, if you had the right political juice. Need to funnel a contract to an important campaign contributor? Need to toss work to a friendly union? Have a pet project on your home turf? No prob. Consider it done.
Some DRPA projects were boondoggles, hilariously so, if it were not for the criminal waste. For example, consider Philadelphia's Stonehenge, the huge concrete pillars at Penn's Landing, the only residue from DRPA's foolish cross-river tram idea.
The current spate of scandalous headlines about DRPA is, oh, the fifth during my 20 years in these parts. It has been the most consequential, leading to passage of overdue reforms. With the authority's finances in peril, the board even has taken a solemn, drunkard's oath to stay away from economic development grant-making.
Here's the uphill part of my argument. I think it's possible for reforms to be not only overdue but overdone.
The idea of using bridge tolls to fund economic development is not the outrageous hijacking of the authority's mission that some critics claim. Economic development was written into the current DRPA charter by two pretty smart governors, Bob Casey Sr. and Tom Kean.
Besides the boondoggles, lots of good projects enjoyed by many people (including toll payers) got done with DRPA money: ballparks, the Kimmel Center, the Constitution Center, the Camden riverfront.
(Here's where I have to disclose that, over the years, WHYY has received some DRPA funds.)
Besides all the venal ones, legitimate reasons do exist to keep the ATM open, though certainly with clearer rules and limits.
Ed Rendell is about to leave the governor's mansion, ending an eight-year Philly gravy train. In Trenton, Chris Christie acts as if he'd be happy to see Camden fall into the Delaware. Everywhere, a vogue for angry, libertarian populism makes even a responsible tax increase unthinkable.
Is this really the time to shut down one of this region's few sources of key dollars for worthy projects?