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Elmer Smith: DRPA's toll 'break' raises eyebrows, but not salaries

IN THE SPIRIT of the holiday season, our friends at the Delaware River Port Authority have cut us a break.

IN THE SPIRIT of the holiday season, our friends at the Delaware River Port Authority have cut us a break.

That's right! The kind hearts and gentle people who manage four spans across the Delaware managed to eke out a little sump'in for us bridge crossers. They deferred the ritual raising of the tolls from September 2010 until July 2011. As a result of their largesse, those who use the Walt Whitman, Ben Franklin, Commodore Barry or Betsy Ross bridges will get a 10-month reprieve before bridge tolls go from expensive to exorbitant.

Pardon me if I withhold my hosannas. But I'm still paying off the bridge loan I had to float to cover last year's 33 percent toll hike. It costs a third more to go over the river and through the woods to grandma's house this Christmas than in the past.

In 2008, the commission (isn't that what the Mafia called their ruling body?) hiked tolls from $3 to $4.

But the 14 board appointees had the foresight to see that $4 wouldn't cover the cost of paint and bulbs and whatever they use to kill trolls. So, they raised it another 25 percent in time for next year's seashore rush.

Many of us are still chafing from the two-for-one hike. So, this week they applied the soothing salve of a deferred increase.

"I am pleased that we are not applying additional financial strain to our customers," DRPA chairman John Estey said in a news release this week.

Actually, that should say "our bridge customers." Riders of the PATCO High Speed Line will find that their 10 percent hike is still on track for September.

The toll break reflects their understanding "of the impact this economy has had on people," said John J. Matheussen, chief executive officer of DRPA and PATCO.

They almost had me with their "understanding of the impact" until I read a little further and found out how they plan to tide themselves over until 2011.

"People are hurting, so we asked staff to find a way to hold off on a toll hike," DRPA vice chairman Jeff Nash said in the news release.

Ahhh, not exactly. Part of the adjustment they had to make for lost revenue was finding "efficiencies."

One efficiency is that toll takers and other noncontract employees will get no raise this year. I doubt that the staff came up with that idea.

The staff could not have come up with the idea of reallocating $8 million from economic-development funds either. That came from a higher authority.

They are the nameless, faceless but all-powerful commission that morphed DRPA from a port authority into patrons of the arts and really big athletic supporters.

Since 2000, they have spent $350 million. They gave millions for the Kimmel Center, Lincoln Financial Field, the National Constitution Center, the Camden River Sharks and the New Jersey Aquarium, to name just a few.

I could get behind some of that. But they also scraped together $13 million for causes close to Vince Fumo's huge heart, including $3.57 million for the Spring Garden Community Development Corp. and $10 million for Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods.

All of that is over now. As of 2010, they are out of the business of making economic-development grants.

Without the burden of that philanthropy, DRPA seems somehow more, ah, efficient. Matheussen told me that the DRPA will need to use only "$142-145 million of the $200 million they were expecting to spend next year.

"We can reduce the use of capital," Matheussen said. "Estimates are coming in lower than expected. We don't have to borrow as much, so we are spending less on debt service."

For fear of seeming ungrateful, I considered sending a thank-you card to each appointee.

But when you add up the cost of sending cards to all the workers who didn't get a raise, it comes close to the $200 the DRPA is saving us in toll hikes.

Instead, say a kind word to the toll taker whose unsolicited sacrifice has helped to make this possible.

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