THERE'LL BE no E-ZPass for the DRPA, and I mean literally and figuratively.

In the wake of calls for investigations over disclosures about car allowances, fat paychecks, patronage and perks such as free E-ZPass, the Delaware River Port Authority is about to be publicly strip-searched.

The spread-'em could start a week from today, when the DRPA board is set to meet for the first time since labor leader/board commissioner John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty lit a fuse by demanding more transparency last month.

The key here is that the fuse remains lit, so the search will go beyond no-toll rides and into the heart of an agency long suspected of questionable management and contract practices, mostly done in secret.

There's no telling how it ends. Maybe the $300 million, 900-employee DRPA ends. Maybe bridge tolls go down instead of up as scheduled. But something's gonna happen.

Govs. Rendell and Christie already called for reforms to open the bistate authority's dealings and reduce political pull in decisions and hiring.

DRPA chairman John Estey already stopped free E-ZPass and car allowances, and is asking for audits and a ban on handing jobs to relatives.

Just the rapidity with which this occurred suggests an effort to duck and roll, a CYA move that smacks of "Oh, yes, you're right, and so we fixed it, so let's all just move along."

But it's too late to hide. Too many are looking for too much more.

State Auditor General Jack Wagner, a DRPA ex-officio board member, hammers "misuse" of taxpayer toll money for projects unrelated to running bridges.

He says that hundreds of millions of dollars improperly went for things such as a soccer stadium in Chester and the Army/Navy football game: "Almost a third of the debt has gone to miscellaneous economic-development projects."

(Wagner publicly blasted DRPA projects policy in an Inky op-ed piece in February 2009.)

Reforms, he now says, need to go "further than what [Chairman] Estey is suggesting." Wagner claims that Estey offers "zero leadership on this issue."

Estey is vacationing out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

State Treasurer Rob McCord, also an ex-officio board member, this week got 1,600 pages of DRPA documents after a sweeping request made last month for authority practices, contracts, legal and ethical safeguards, and expenditures.

"It's a full data-dump," McCord says, requested because he "lost confidence that the processes in place were appropriate." He's looking, for example, into reports that smaller "economic development" grants ($100,000 or less) are awarded without board approval.

City Councilman Frank DiCicco, a board member who openly admits that the place is packed with patronage jobs, some of them his, is calling for eliminating four top politically connected positions to save $583,000 a year.

He even says that maybe the DRPA needs a civil-service policy to end nepotism and patronage. When I ask if he thinks the board would back such a policy, he says, "If it doesn't, we'll always be criticized."

Meanwhile, state Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Sen. John Rafferty, a former state deputy attorney general, plans a public hearing next month to begin the process of cleaning up "decades of abuse."

He calls the reforms proposed to date merely efforts to dodge public attention and says that "systemic changes" are needed, especially in hiring practices (he wants appointees confirmed by the Senate) and use of DRPA money.

The hearing is tentatively set for Sept. 22 with a witness list to include Estey and DRPA's chief executive, John Matheussen.

All this points to the possibility of an overdue DRPA purge. A new governor in Jersey helps. A new governor in Pennsylvania next year is a plus. So, maybe circumstance creates a cleansing that finally takes a toll.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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