At its last meeting of the year, the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) board voted to postpone a bridge toll increase scheduled for January 1st, 2015 until 2017.
Chief Financial Officer Jim White noted that “there was no need” for the twenty-five-cent toll increase, scheduled biennially to account for inflation, because the DRPA capital program budget was already sufficiently funded. DRPA uses toll revenues primarily to fund capital projects, such as the upcoming repainting of the Commodore Barry Bridge. Toll revenues also service DRPA’s $1.6 billion in bond debt, which will cost DRPA over $130 million this year. Tolls last went up on the DRPA’s four bridges in 2011.
The board also approved the authority’s 2015 budget, authorizing an operating budget of nearly $81 million – a 3.78 percent increase over last year – and a capital budget of $146.4 million. $43 million of the capital budget comes from the federal and state grants.
Additionally, the board approved major payments made by the authority since the last meeting. Usually, such approval is a matter of dull routine, but this month, those payments included controversial legal fees paid to the law firms of two commissioners.
The Inquirer reported Wednesday that the DRPA approved hiring then-Chairman William Sasso’s and Vice-Chairman Jeffrey Nash’s law firms to represent them in an ongoing federal grand jury investigation. The U.S. Attorney’s office is investigating DRPA spending on economic development projects, wherein politically connected firms won large contracts. DRPA voted in 2011 to end all such spending – which totaled almost $500 million over 15 years, funded by issuing bonds – among public criticism of a transportation agency incurring large debts to spend on non-transportation related projects.
Saying he wanted to “correct the record” during the public comment period, Sasso argued there was nothing untoward in DRPA paying $70,045 to his firm, Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young, to represent him in the investigation.
Sasso called the report “materially deficient in a number of ways,” saying that his testimony to the United States Attorney’s office related to complaints he made as the Operation and Management Committee chair about the economic development spending. “Quite frankly… I saved this authority quite a bit of money, well in excess of any fees my firm charged.”
Nash’s firm, Cozen O’Connor, also received $2,400 to represent him. Additionally, DRPA paid Duane Morris $968,400 to represent the entire board in the investigation, and expects to spend another $900,000 in 2015.
DRPA commissioners usually serve without compensation, but by hiring their firms, DRPA effectively gave Sasso and Nash performance bonuses for helping to end the economic development spending.