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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.

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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?


  • A. Citizen says:

    Perhaps if DRPA had focused on its core mission to adequately maintain and fund rail and bridge projects the Glassboro – Camden rail commuter line would already be built (see Philadelphia Inquirer story below).

    Governors Casey and Kean are two smart guys. But they also had a vested interest in unnecessarily expanding the role of DRPA to use as an unlimited source of public money for ‘off the books’ projects. Economic development dollars should come from local, state and federal agencies that have the expertise to properly evaluate and monitor projects, not from an agency that needs to run the trains on time and move traffic safely across bridges.

    Read Nussbaum’s story, Mr. Satullo, and then tell us where DRPA’s money is better invested — on ballparks, museums and concert halls or expanding PATCO to one of the most heavily traveled corridors in the Untied States. The former projects may be worthy but funding should have come from either Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development or New Jersey’s Economic Development Authority, not DRPA.

    Posted on Tue, Aug. 31, 2010

    DRPA rail plans delayed by funding shortfall

    By Paul Nussbaum

    Inquirer Staff Writer
    State funding has been held up for a proposed commuter rail line between Glassboro and Camden, victim of a troubled Transportation Trust Fund and a tough economy.

    Then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine promised last year to provide $500 million to the Delaware River Port Authority for the $1.5 billion, 18-mile rail line. The money was to come from the Transportation Trust Fund, which is funded with gas-tax revenues and borrowed money.

    The DRPA was counting on up to $9 million of that aid to pay for an environmental impact statement that is required before work can proceed on the rail line.

    The environmental study money, to be provided by NJ Transit, has not been forthcoming.

    Meanwhile, the DRPA is holding about $427,000 in bills submitted by engineering consultant STV Inc. for the environmental work, which has slowed dramatically.

    NJ Transit “notified DRPA in April that funding for the [environmental impact statement] work is not available at this time,” said NJ Transit spokeswoman Lynn Bowersox.

    She said NJ Transit remained “committed to the project and will reimburse DRPA as soon as funds are available.”

    DRPA hopes to secure a $750,000 letter of authorization from NJ Transit to allow it to pay for the first phase of the environmental work, chief executive John Matheussen said Monday.

    The environmental impact statement will take about two years to prepare, the DRPA said in July 2009 when it awarded a no-bid, $8.9 million contract to STV for the work.

    The environmental contract was added to STV’s earlier $1.5 million contract to assess alternative route possibilities for the rail line.

    After objections from the Christie administration, the contract was changed this year to a $750,000 award, with the rest of the environmental work being put to competitive bid.

    The work “has been in kind of a lull … but it will get going soon,” Matheussen said Monday. He said the financing difficulties and work slowdown might not affect the two-year timetable for completing the work.

    Bowersox said NJ Transit’s new executive director, James Weinstein, “wanted to undertake a review of both operating and capital project budgets based on unprecedented economic challenges for the agency.

    “We are confident that TTF funding will be available and we will proceed with the agreement in due course.”

    The Transportation Trust Fund is about $11.6 billion in debt and is projected to run out of money for highway and mass-transit work by June 30.

    Christie said last week he expected to announce in the third week of September a plan to replenish the trust fund. He has said he will not raise taxes or tolls to provide the additional money.

    Christie’s administration says it supports the proposed light-rail line, though it may not honor the $500 million funding promise made by Corzine.

    The proposed light-rail line would run 18 miles alongside an existing Conrail freight line through Glassboro, Pitman, Mantua, Wenonah, Woodbury, Deptford, West Deptford, Westville, Bellmawr, Brooklawn, Gloucester City, and Camden.

    The line would connect to PATCO and River Line trains at the Walter Rand Transportation Center in Camden, where passengers could catch trains to Philadelphia or Trenton.

    The first leg of the line, from Camden to Woodbury, could be operational in about five years if financing is available, DRPA officials have said.

    Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com

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  • William Saidel says:

    If only you thought a bit more in your essay on the DRPA, you would have had an excellent commentary. The problem of DRPA is not giving away so much $$$ for development. It is not thinking better about the process.
    1. If the grants to the new soccer stadium, the Camden waterfront, the museums and stadiums in Philly were loans, even with great terms for the recipients, then continued development in the future would be insured. By giving grants, a continuing source of money is required and that is just not fair to the drivers crossing the river because…..
    2.The majority of drivers using the Ben Franklin and Whitman Bridges are from New Jersey. Therefore, the majority of DRPA money is a loss to Southern NJ development. We take it on the chin from North Jersey and we take it on the chin from DRPA. Where is the fairness in that? How about requiring each state to contribute to DRPA for development projects and use the toll fees for maintenance of the bridges? That way, development continues and the toll may be reduced to a reasonable expense.

  • DIESEL DAN says:

    Hey Chris,

    Great idea except one big problem:
    It’s my money, not yours. I earned it and I, NOT YOU or the DRPA will decide where and how I wish to spend it. If you want to give your money to WHYY or stadiums go ahead, but KEEP YOUR HANDS OUT OF MY POCKETS! Do you understand? It’s pretty simple.

  • Bob says:

    The article states that WHYY has received funds from the DRPA. That is not true. The funds were not from DRPA, but from the toll payers from whom the money was confiscated. They were forced against their will into contributing to WHYY. It was literally “highway robbery”. It is not ethical that WHYY accepted the funds and knowing this WHYY should return the funds.

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