With the Delaware River Port Authority poised to spend $11 million tomorrow on development projects in Philadelphia and Camden, legislators on both sides of the river are talking about changing the agency's charter to forbid the use of toll money for such economic development.
The charter was amended in 1992 to permit economic-development spending, and since then, the DRPA has spent more than $375 million on sports arenas, museums, concert halls, and other projects, much to commuters' dismay.
When the DRPA increased tolls on its four Delaware River bridges last summer to $4, the board promised it would not use the new revenue for economic development. But it said that about $35 million remaining from previous borrowing could be used for such spending.
The board is expected to vote tomorrow to spend $11 million of that money for a half-dozen projects in Philadelphia and Camden, including $3.5 million for a President's House memorial near Independence Hall.
Pennsylvania State Rep. Paul Clymer, a Bucks County Republican, said he "would be very interested in amending the charter" to prohibit such spending.
An amendment would require action by the legislatures of both states and approval by Congress and the president. That last occurred in 1992, when the DRPA charter was changed to authorize economic development and to extend the agency's area of responsibility to Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties.
"It makes no sense for them to be spending toll dollars for economic development," Clymer said. "Politicians are using the money for their special pet projects, while costs are ballooning for motorists."
On the New Jersey side, Assemblyman Scott Rudder (R., Burlington), said "there is interest" in amending the charter, but he doubted it would be a priority with the legislature's Democratic majority.
"I do think it's a good idea," Rudder said. "When people are struggling to make ends meet, you look at some of the projects the DRPA is spending money on and you want to scratch your head and say, 'Why am I paying for things totally unrelated to the operation and safety of bridges?' "
The AAA Mid-Atlantic auto club, which has been outspoken in its opposition to the DRPA's development spending, "would support a charter change to eliminate the authority from doing economic-development projects," spokeswoman Catherine L. Rossi said.
James Edward Maule, a law professor at Villanova University and a critic of the DRPA's development spending, said the current charter gave the board "power to use the money however they see fit."
"It's a back-door way of funding projects without having to levy a tax for that purpose," he said.
But any effort to change the charter could face an uphill political battle. Control of the DRPA board - and its projects - is in the hands of the Democratic governors of Pennsylvania and New Jersey; Gov. Rendell is chairman of the board. Democrats are the majority in the Pennsylvania House and in both chambers of the New Jersey Legislature.
Legislators outside of South Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania don't know, or care, much about the DRPA.
"My guess is this would not be a top priority," Rudder said. "Some of the development projects are in the speaker's district," referring to Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. (D., Camden).
Roberts could not be reached immediately for comment yesterday.When the charter was changed nearly 17 years ago, it was a bipartisan effort that overcame long-standing resistance from New Jersey members of the DRPA, who said they feared that toll revenues would be diverted from bridge maintenance.
At the time, the DRPA's debt was about $250 million. The round-trip bridge toll had increased days earlier to $2, up from $1.80.
Now, the agency's debt is about $1.2 billion and expected to rise to $1.5 billion this year as the DRPA borrows to pay for bridge repairs and railcar upgrades.
Tolls on the Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, Commodore Barry, and Betsy Ross Bridges are $4, and scheduled to rise to $5 next year.
The DRPA expects total toll and PATCO fare revenues to be about $281.5 million in 2009. Spending on operations and payments on the agency's debt will total $255.6 million. The agency expects to deposit $25.9 million in its general fund.
Its current $104 million capital budget includes about $48 million for bridge repairs and upgrades; $31 million for PATCO projects; and about $20 million for security projects.
The biggest expense in its operating budget - $117 million, or 41 percent - is for payments on DRPA's debt. That is a higher debt burden, compared with income, than that of any toll-collecting agency in the region.
The DRPA last week defended its latest plans for economic-development spending as "necessary and appropriate."
In a letter sent to AAA and other critics, DRPA customer-service and community-relations manager Maria Mondile wrote, "We are confident that the authority's investment in these projects will generate increased toll and transit revenues for years to come."
And she said that "even if every penny of the remaining $35 million in bond proceeds were diverted to the capital program [for bridge repairs and other improvements], it would not reduce the size of the bond issue needed to fund the program, nor would it reduce or eliminate the need for the toll increases that are being implemented to fund it."
Maule, the Villanova professor, said public anger with DRPA had less to do with the projects that are being funded than with the way the agency does it.
"These aren't bad projects. They're not funding the importation of illegal drugs or something," he said. "But the user fees are being used for purposes totally unrelated to what users are paying for."
Drivers are frustrated, he said, because they have little recourse. They don't have another way to cross the river, and they don't have a way to vote against DRPA board members.
Tomorrow's DRPA board meeting, open to the public, is at 10 a.m. at the agency's headquarters, adjacent to the Adventure Aquarium, 2 Riverside Dr., Camden.