Higher bridge tolls and PATCO train fares moved a step closer to reality today, as a Delaware River Port Authority board committee approved a budget that assumes a 10 percent PATCO fare hike January 1 and a $1 bridge toll increase on July 1.
But DRPA board members continued to hold out hope for a last-minute reprieve, if they can persuade Wall Street that more toll money won't be necessary until 2012.
The DRPA finance committee, after 4-1/2 hours of wrangling and hand-wringing, approved an operating budget of $265 million, a decrease of about 0.5 percent from this year's current budget.
The budget still needs approval of the full board next Wednesday.
The budget assumes scheduled toll increases will go forward as currently planned. Several board members, including finance committee chairman Jeff Nash and Philadelphia labor leader John Dougherty, have been seeking a delay of the toll increases until 2012, with the agency using unspent economic development funds to replace anticipated toll revenue.
Financial analysts warned the DRPA board that bond-rating agencies likely would punish the DRPA with lower bond ratings if tolls and fares are not raised as scheduled. That could lead to higher borrowing costs and an immediate demand for repayment of a $220 million debt.
The finance committee also approved a $150 million capital budget, which also required full board approval next week.
And Dougherty added a new wrinkle to the deliberations when he announced he plans to propose next week that DRPA divest itself of the PATCO commuter rail operation, which requires a $20 million annual subsidy from the agency.