For you the bridge tolls

     A determined effort by electricians’ union leader John Dougherty to postpone a planned toll increase on Delaware River bridges fell short at a contentious meeting of the Delaware River Port Authority last night.

    Tolls on the four bridges are set to rise from $4 to $5 on July 1.

    Dougherty argued that roughly $50 million in DRPA funds pledged but not spent for economic development and community projects could be devoted instead to forestalling the toll hike for a year.

    “My phone’s been off the hook for three days from people I don’t even know saying they can’t afford to cross the bridge,” Dougherty said during one heated exchange. But DRPA board chairman John Estey told Dougherty there was far less than $50 million available from the economic development funds.

    Estey said roughly $32 million of the money was already contractually committed, and much of the rest was promised to viable projects.

    Among them, he said, was the historic President’s House project on independence hall, devoted to commemorating the lives of colonial slaves.

    “There are well-meaning people in all these not-for-profits who’ve been working very hard to raise their part of the money to build that President’s House,” Estey said.

    “For us to come and say now, `you’re just not getting that three and a half million dollars,’ that’s just not right,” he said.

    Estey’s statement drew applause from some in the audience at the Camden County Boathouse in Pennsauken.

    While some had come to urge continued funding of projects like the President’s House, others condemned the board for its spending and argued against a toll increase.

    “I’m puzzled why this board is even here today,” said Rich Cunliff, a retired teacher from Haddonfield. “ I would have thought by now the most ethical and prudent thing you could have done was resign en masse.”

    Board members decided to study the proposal to postpone the toll increase. But it appeared unlikely enough savings would be found to postpone it for long.

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