By Gerald McOscar
Motorists traveling to and from Pennsylvania and New Jersey may be nicked more for the privilege next year. The Delaware River Port Authority has announced that tolls on the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Betsy Ross and Commodore Barry Bridges could increase from $3 to possibly $5. John R. Bogle, one of the Pennsylvania commissioners on the board, cited increased maintenance and security concerns arising from the Minnesota bridge collapse in August to justify the increase.
The Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) owns the PATCO line, the RiverLink Ferry, and the Philadelphia Cruise Terminal, but tolls from the four major bridges are its main source of revenue: $195 million from 55 million trips last year. Apparently, $195 million isn't enough to keep the bridges upright.
Interestingly, Bogle didn't mention cost-cutting as an alternative to the toll increase. To the contrary, news of the increase came on the same day that the DRPA board approved a raise and three-year contract for the agency's chief executive officer, John Matheussen. He will receive $213,076 a year, including a car allowance and other benefits, a hefty 9.3 percent hike from his current $195,000 package.
The DRPA's mission has expanded over time from simply managing traffic on and across the river. The agency has become a major regional economic-development authority, particularly in the Philadelphia and Camden areas.
The DRPA's current operating budget is $225 million, and its capital budget is $47.1 million. With a budget that size, patronage, waste and self-dealing are always clear and present dangers.
Want evidence? Consider the infamous $10 million in economic-development funds the agency generously channeled to State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo's favorite charity while Fumo was on its board. According to a federal indictment handed down last February, this "investment" had little to do with the industrial and commercial revitalization of anything, except to revitalize the pockets of the Philadelphia senator and his friends.
With its track record of self-dealing and 9.3 percent raises, the DRPA has a duty to its captive customers to prove that it has scrutinized every revenue and expense item in its budget before raising tolls.
For example, how much of the budget is targeted for economic development and how much of that will be funded by the toll increase? More fundamentally, should motorists be obliged to subsidize operations only tangentially related to the maintenance of the bridges without their consent?
This is but a start. I suspect that ruthless cost-cutting, jettisoning money-losing ventures, privatization, and rigorous, independent oversight would both deflate the budget and relieve the pressure on motorists' wallets.
To paraphrase what my mother used to say, just because other transportation agencies are increasing fees doesn't make it right.