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DRPA spends $20 million for economic-development projects

Saying it marked the end of an expensive era, the board of the Delaware River Port Authority on Wednesday spent $20 million of its remaining economic-development funds for non-transportation projects.

Saying it marked the end of an expensive era, the board of the Delaware River Port Authority on Wednesday spent $20 million of its remaining economic-development funds for non-transportation projects.

The board's two unappointed members, Pennsylvania's auditor general and treasurer, opposed the spending, arguing that the money should have gone for transportation projects or toward reducing the agency's $1.4 billion debt.

The vote on the last $29.9 million of the DRPA's controversial economic-development funds sent about $10 million back to the agency for future capital projects and $19.7 million to such projects as local food banks, a new cancer center in Camden, student housing for Rutgers-Camden, and Cooper River rowing facilities.

Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner, unsuccessful in his attempt to block the spending, then called on the board to early next year dedicate most of the unspent $10 million to two transportation projects cut from the agency's 2012 capital budget: a bicycle and wheelchair ramp on the Camden side of the Ben Franklin Bridge ($3.2 million) and the reopening of the long-closed Franklin Square subway station on the PATCO line in Philadelphia ($3.5 million).

The board on Wednesday also approved the DRPA's operating and capital budgets for 2012. The agency operates four toll bridges linking Philadelphia and South Jersey and the PATCO commuter rail line.

The agency's operating budget will be $126.8 million, essentially the same as this year. Total spending, including debt payments and biennial bridge-inspection costs, is slated to be $275 million, a 4 percent increase from this year.

The capital budget, for such things as bridge repairs and rebuilt PATCO railcars, was set at $125 million, about $25 million less than for the current year.

The budgets were approved without dissent. But the economic-development spending was not.

Wagner argued the $29.7 million - the last of nearly $500 million borrowed and spent on such things as stadiums, museums and concert halls over the last 14 years - should go for projects that directly benefit bridge toll payers and PATCO riders.

He said the DRPA was violating its own 2010 resolutions not to spend any more economic-development money on non-transportation projects.

"This is all about who we are and why we are here," Wagner said. "We're here to represent John Doe and Jane Doe traveling the bridges and riding PATCO."

Jeff Nash, a Camden County freeholder who is vice chairman of the DRPA board and the architect of the final spending list, called the spending a compromise that "closes a chapter that began in 1992" when the DRPA was authorized to spend on economic development.

Nash noted that Pennsylvania already had spent all of its share of the economic-development pot and that it would be "fundamentally unfair" for New Jersey not to get the same benefit.

Here's where the money goes:

$6 million for a cancer center being built at Cooper University Hospital.

$4.3 million for unspecified development in Camden by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.

$4 million for Cooper River rowing-course improvements.

$2 million for student housing at Rutgers-Camden.

$2 million for the Food Bank of South Jersey.

$1 million for road improvements for an office, residential, and commercial development by the PATCO Ferry Avenue Station near Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden.

$400,000 to stabilize Gloucester City's Freedom Pier.

Wagner was joined in opposing the economic-development spending by the representative of Pennsylvania Treasurer Rob McCord.

The other 14 DRPA board members, including Gov. Corbett, who chairs the board, voted in favor of the spending.

Corbett has said he opposes future economic-development spending and wants the DRPA to fund only transportation projects related to its bridges and trains.

Advocates for bicyclists and pedestrians were among a standing-room-only crowd at Wednesday's DRPA meeting, urging the board to restore funding that was eliminated for a ramp to replace 39 stairs to the Ben Franklin Bridge walkway on the Camden side.

John Boyle of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia presented a petition with 721 signatures to the board calling for the $3.2 million for the ramp to be restored to the agency's capital budget for 2012.

Wagner asked the board's staff to prepare a resolution for a board vote next month on restoring the funding for the ramp and for the planned reopening of the long-closed Franklin Square subway station.

The Franklin Square station, built in 1936, opened intermittently and last used in 1979, lies beneath newly refurbished Franklin Square at Sixth and Race Streets. There, a fountain, carousel and miniature golf course have brought new life to the once-seedy park that was one of William Penn's original five squares.

The board in 2009 authorized the money for its reopening, but the funding for the station, like the funding for the bridge ramp, was cut from the 2012 budget, Nash said, because it wasn't necessary for the "safety and security" of the bridges or PATCO.

Inquirer staff writer Maya Rao contributed to this article.