Call for permanent reform of DRPA

     Pennsylvania State Sen. John Rafferty (at podium) and other officials call for permanent reforms at the Delaware River Port Authority. (Dave Davies/WHYY)

    Pennsylvania State Sen. John Rafferty (at podium) and other officials call for permanent reforms at the Delaware River Port Authority. (Dave Davies/WHYY)

    A group of Pennsylvania and New Jersey state officials gathered at the Delaware River in Camden Thursday to say they’re drafting laws to make permanent reforms in the Delaware River Port Authority.

    You may remember scandals a few years back about employee perks and wasteful spending at the DRPA, the bistate authority which manages four bridges over the Delaware River and the PATCO high-speed line.

    Authority officials instituted a number of reforms after those controversies to increase transparency and ensure funds were used for the bridges and PATCO instead of pet projects backed by politicians from both sides of the river.

    The sole lawmaker from the Garden State was state Sen. Joe Pennacchio from North Jersey who said commuters at DRPA bridges were paying higher tolls to pay for unnecessary spending in the past.

    “The DRPA has spent hundreds of millions of dollars for contracts for economic development unrelated to its bridges and rail line,” Pennacchio said. In addition to big-ticket projects such as stadiums, the authority made grants to many nonprofits including WHYY, which no longer receives any funding from the authority.

    Pennacchio and three Pennsylvania officials, state Sen. John Rafferty, state Rep. Mike Vereb, and state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said they plan to push changes in state law to govern the conduct of the authority.

    The DRPA management did not respond to the officials’ news conference, but DRPA Vice Chairman Jeffrey Nash, who was around for the controversies five years ago, said the authority is a different place now.

    “In 2010, the DRPA in conjunction with the governors’ offices in Harrisburg and in Trenton initiated 40 reforms to change the nature of the business operation and the culture at the DRPA,” Nash said.

    DePasquale said the reforms at the DRPA could have gone further. More importantly, he said, the integrity of the agency shouldn’t depend solely on the quality of the management in charge at a given time.

    “There’s going to be a day when we’re not in office. We don’t come with the furniture,” said DePasquale, who has an appointee on the board. “There’s going to be a day when current board members of the authority that are trying to do the right thing just won’t be on the authority anymore. This legislative package in both states is critical to ensure that we never go back to the dark days.”

     “What we want to do is make sure that these changes are in statute so there’s no going back to the old ways,” Rafferty added. 

    The proposed legislation restricts spending at the DRPA, bans gifts and perks to employees, and requires the authority to comply with both states’ open records laws.

    Making the changes law will require approval in both legislatures and Congress. Nash says he’d support committing the DRPA reforms to law.

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