Higher bridge tolls are likely to be delayed until at least mid-2008, as the Delaware River Port Authority proposes to dip into its cash reserves rather than hike tolls immediately.
The agency's proposed budget, unveiled today, suggests taking about $62 million from its general fund to help pay for upcoming bridge repairs and rail car upgrades, rather than increasing tolls right away.
But DRPA officials said a "new significant funding source," probably higher tolls, will be needed soon to provide $1 billion over five years for repairs and improvements to the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Betsy Ross and Commodore Barry Bridges and the PATCO commuter rail line.
Some officials have suggested that a toll increase of $2, up from the current $3 for autos, may be necessary. Tolls, which are paid only on west-bound trips, were last increased in 2000.
The DRPA board will vote on the budget next Wednesday.
"The board has to grapple with what has been presented today," said chief executive officer John J. Matheussen. "There's money in our general fund to get us through 2008 . . . but the board has to decide where we go beyond 2008."
Depending on the board's actions next week, a possible path toward higher tolls could include public hearings in Pennsylvania and New Jersey early next year, detailed traffic studies during the spring, and implementation of new tolls by July.
The proposed 2008 operating budget is $228.7 million, up from $222.5 million this year. The capital budget, which pays for repairs and improvements, is $93.6 million for 2008.
The agency's anticipated income for 2008 is $238 million, about 82 percent of that from bridge tolls. Income is expected to be up slightly next year, about $2 million more than in 2007.
Chief financial officer John Hanson said the DRPA is committed to spending about $947 million over the next five years for repairs that are "necessary to keep our bridges safe, serviceable and secure." That includes redecking the Walt Whitman bridge ($120 million), repainting the Ben Franklin ($23 million), improving vessel collision protections on the bridges ($23 million).
Only about $380 million of the five-year capital budget is specifically for bridge improvements.
It also includes $57 million for a long-delayed tram across the Delaware River.
It includes $335 million for PATCO upgrades, including $111 million for rebuilding commuter rail cars, many of which date to 1969, and $64 million for rebuilding tracks on the Ben Franklin Bridge and replacing electric power poles and lines.
By dipping into its $195 million cash reserve to pay for capital projects, the DRPA can forestall raising tolls. But the cash reserve, or general fund, is essentially the collateral that the DRPA maintains to keep its lenders happy. So dipping too deeply into the reserve might reduce Wall Street's confidence in the DRPA's bonds, resulting in lower bond ratings and higher borrowing costs.
Vice chairman Jeffery Nash said today that he thought the cash reserve fund had grown larger than necessary and that he did not expect the agency's bond rating to slip.
In addition to operating the four bridges and the PATCO High-Speed Line, the DRPA also owns and operates the Philadelphia Cruise Terminal and the RiverLink Ferry.
The agency also has expanded its mission to serve as an economic development authority, investing heavily in projects aimed at helping revive the Camden waterfront.
The prospect of a toll hike comes as other transportation agencies in the region and around the nation also are increasing fees. SEPTA and NJ Transit raised fares earlier this year, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is contemplating raising the toll on the George Washington Bridge and Lincoln and Holland tunnels to $8, from $6.
The original round-trip toll on the Ben Franklin bridge, built in 1926, was 50 cents. That would be the equivalent of about $5.90 today.