Starting a process that will likely end in substantial toll increases on four area bridges, the Delaware River Port Authority board today approved its 2008 operating and capital budgets.

The cost of bridge repairs and maintenance and the cost of rebuilding PATCO commuter rail cars will necessitate borrowing money soon, DRPA officials said.

That is likely to mean toll increases by mid-2008 on the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Betsy Ross and Commodore Barry bridges.

Tolls, currently $3 for autos, could rise by as much as $2. An alternative would be for the port authority to increase tolls by less than $2 and implement annual hikes tied to inflation.

The DRPA board, without discussion or dissent, approved an operating budget of $229 million and a capital budget of $94 million.

To avoid raising tolls immediately, the board approved a plan to take about $62 million from the agency's $195 million cash reserve to help pay for forthcoming bridge repairs and railcar upgrades.

But DRPA officials said new revenue will be needed soon to provide $1 billion over five years for repairs and improvements to bridges and the PATCO commuter rail line. That revenue is likely to come from higher bridge tolls.

Public hearings will be held early next year on the financial plan, board officials said.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.