DRPA Dispatch: PATCO ridership rebounding after bridge work; DRPA finances rebounding after mismanagement work

After a year of constrained schedules due to maintenance work on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, ridership on PATCO trains has fully rebounded and may be growing past previous highs.

PATCO ridership in August was up 11 percent over the same month last year, PATCO General Manager John Rink reported at Wednesday’s monthly meeting of the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) and PATCO boards. That jump is partly because August this year had two more weekdays than August 2015, but the average weekday ridership also saw a 5.94 percent increase — from 34,539 to 36,602 — suggesting meaningful gains. Ridership in 2016 is up 6.26 percent, as of the end of August.

Maintenance work on the Ben Franklin Bridge that had reduced services Thursdays through Sundays finished in the spring. As summer ends, it appears as though riders displaced by the limited schedules have returned, and some new riders may be joining them. Rink noted that PATCO has seen ridership sneak past 40,000 a few times in recent weeks, above the pre-bridge work highs, which hovered around 38,000. Rink hypothesized that increased employment in Center City Philadelphia may be fueling ridership growth, but added that it’s still too early to tell.

IMPROVING BUDGET MAY DRAW GREEN EYES

DRPA finances continue to improve, following the years of financial mismanagement and ill-advised economic development spending that ended in 2011.

In addition to PATCO ridership, bridge traffic is up this year as well: Year-to-date traffic is up 5.74 percent and revenues are up 5.3 percent, despite some construction work on the Walt Whitman Bridge. DRPA Chief Financial Officer Jim White reported that expenses were also under budget, 7.3 percent as of the end of July.

The DRPA has also been swapping out its existing loans with new debt to take advantage of improved cash flows and low interest rates, resulting in interest savings.

DRPA Vice-Chair Jeff Nash praised White and his staff, saying the authority was in good shape to start aggressively paying down its $1.487 billion debt, accumulated largely during a period from 1992 to 2011 when local politicians used the DRPA as a piggy bank for museums, stadiums, and concert halls. That economic development spending ended amid a federal investigation.

The investigation also inspired calls to amend the DRPA’s governance to ban such economic development spending in the future. While reform legislation has made some progress in Pennsylvania, it’s been a non-starter in New Jersey. Both state legislatures need to pass reforms, as does the United States Congress, before they can take effect.

So, for now, the DRPA’s finances are improving. But with both New Jersey and Pennsylvania facing ongoing budget crises, will the urge to break open the piggy bank again be tempting?

NO LOVE FOR THE DRPA?

In a recent interview with CBS3’s Ukee Washington, embattled union leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty pledged he would “continue to do the things he loves,” despite an ongoing FBI investigation of IBEW 98.

Apparently he does not love attending joint meetings of the DRPA and PATCO boards. Dougherty, who frequently sat on the meetings as a representative on behalf of ex-officio commissioner Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, was not in attendance today. Dougherty attended the previous meeting on August 17th; two weeks after FBI agents raided his home, IBEW 98’s offices, and Councilman Bobby Henon’s office. Henon previously worked as the electrician union’s political director and remains on its payroll.

Victoria Madden, the auditor general’s chief counsel, attended via telephone instead.

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