Gov. Rendell's proposal to use Delaware River bridge tolls to help build a soccer stadium complex in Chester comes just weeks after the toll authority said it was out of the stadium-building business - and just as the agency prepares for toll increases.
The bistate Delaware River Port Authority, which is expected to raise tolls by mid-year for bridge repairs, says $10 million earmarked years ago for redevelopment may be shifted to the Chester project at the urging of Rendell, the agency's chairman.
Rendell promised backers of the stadium complex that he would seek $10 million from the port authority. Last month, he announced that Pennsylvania would provide $47 million toward the anticipated cost of about $615 million - $115 million for the stadium, and $500 million for adjacent housing, office and retail development.
Major League Soccer reportedly is close to agreeing to put an expansion team in the Philadelphia area, in part because of the promises of a stadium and financing. The port authority's board may consider the $10 million grant at its meeting Wednesday.
The proposal for funding from the port authority follows a decade of redevelopment spending that has helped push the agency $1.2 billion into debt, requiring it to spend about 42 percent of its revenue on interest and principal.
Since 1999, the agency has spent $375 million to help build the Kvaerner (now Aker) Philadelphia Shipyard, Lincoln Financial Field, the Kimmel Center, the National Constitution Center, the New Jersey State Aquarium (now Adventure Aquarium), and dozens of other economic-development projects.
The proposal also comes as the agency prepares to take its case for higher bridge tolls to the commuting public.
In public meetings in the next few months, authority officials will lay out a plan for borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for repairs and improvements to bridges and the PATCO High-Speed Line. That money is expected to be repaid with higher tolls on the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Betsy Ross and Commodore Barry bridges.
Jeffrey Nash, the Camden County freeholder who is vice chairman of the authority, acknowledged Wednesday that past spending "makes it difficult to make the case to the public" for the $10 million in Chester. But he said the agency's $1 billion in needs dwarfed the $10 million.
"The reputation of the DRPA for throwing money at projects was well-deserved," Nash said. But he said the DRPA was now fiscally more prudent: "The days of throwing money into the Delaware River are over."
"Ten million dollars is a lot of money," Nash said, "but it's not going to repave the Walt Whitman Bridge."
Tolls, now $3 for autos, could rise by as much as $2. An alternative would an increase below $2 and annual hikes tied to inflation.
About 82 percent of the port authority's revenue comes from drivers who use the four bridges. The agency expects to take in about $238 million this year, $195 million of that in bridge tolls.
AAA Mid-Atlantic objects to using commuter tolls for development projects, spokeswoman Catherine Rossi said.
"Toll authorities should be in the business of running toll facilities, not building soccer stadiums," she said Wednesday. "No matter how good the economic-development project might be for the area . . . AAA's position is that the toll revenue should be used for those facilities, keeping our bridges in good condition."
When officials at the port authority announced the need for more money late last year, they said the agency's bankrolling of redevelopment projects was over, with tighter fiscal controls under the current leadership.
"All that debt was issued before we arrived," John H. Estey, a senior Rendell adviser who acts as agency chairman in the governor's stead, said in December. "If Gov. Ridge and Gov. Whitman wanted to use revenues for stadiums, that was their decision."
And Nash said in December: "We also made a decision - Gov. Rendell and I have agreed - that economic development will be restricted to transportation or water-borne projects, unless it's critical for job development."
Estey said Wednesday that the $10 million for the Chester project would not be spent on the stadium but on the housing, offices and businesses.
The money was left over from borrowing in 1999 and had been slated for redevelopment at Penn's Landing, he said.
"Given the implications the development has for Chester, we should give it serious consideration," Estey said. "We will look deeply and strongly at it."
A $5 million grant in September for the National Museum of American Jewish History, which is being built near Independence Hall, also was money redirected from Penn's Landing, he said.
"You have to spend it eventually," Estey said, citing requirements in the bond covenants governing the money borrowed in 1999. About $29.4 million for Pennsylvania projects remains unspent, including the $5 million for the Jewish history museum and the $10 million intended for the Chester complex, he said.
About $11 million remains for New Jersey projects.
Regarding future borrowing, Estey said, "All the new money will go to transportation-related" projects.
Nash said the $10 million for the Chester project would be a good use of redevelopment money.
"Using $10 million to leverage $500 million is a good investment," he said. "This is the pure way of doing economic redevelopment."
Nash and Estey said that because the complex is to be built at the base of the Commodore Barry Bridge, it could increase traffic and toll revenue on the bridge.
The port authority's current plans call for spending about $1 billion over the next five years on bridge, rail and other projects.