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DRPA board OKs budget; increase in tolls likely

Bridge tolls could go up as much as $2 by mid-2008. Officials say long-term maintenance and repair projects will require borrowing money soon.

Starting a process that will likely end in substantial toll increases on four local bridges, the Delaware River Port Authority board yesterday approved its 2008 operating and capital budgets.

The cost of bridge repairs and maintenance and of rebuilding PATCO commuter railcars will require borrowing money soon, DRPA officials said.

And that's likely to mean toll increases by mid-2008 on the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Betsy Ross and Commodore Barry Bridges.

Tolls, now $3 for autos, could rise by as much as $2. An alternative would be for the port authority to increase tolls by less than $2 and implement annual hikes tied to inflation.

The DRPA board, without discussion or dissent, approved an operating budget of $229 million (including $99 million for debt service) and a capital budget of $94 million. Total operating expenses are up 2.8 percent from this year.

To avoid raising tolls immediately, the board approved a plan to take about $62 million from the agency's $195 million cash reserve to help pay for forthcoming bridge repairs and railcar upgrades.

The agency expects to take in about $238 million this year, $195 million of that in bridge tolls.

But DRPA officials said that more revenue would be needed soon to provide $1 billion over five years for repairs and improvements to bridges and the PATCO commuter rail line. That money is likely to come from higher bridge tolls.

Public hearings will be held early next year on the financial plan, board officials said.

"Bridges don't take care of themselves. Rail lines don't take care of themselves," said John H. Estey, the senior adviser to Gov. Rendell who acts as chairman of the DRPA in Rendell's stead. "We need people to understand that we're talking about the security of these bridges and this rail line."

Among the biggest expenses ahead: redecking the Walt Whitman Bridge ($120 million), repainting the Ben Franklin ($23 million), and improving vessel collision protections on the bridges ($23 million).

Only about $380 million of the five-year capital budget is specifically for bridge improvements. The budget also includes $57 million for a long-delayed tram across the Delaware River.

Another expense is $335 million for PATCO upgrades, including $111 million for rebuilding commuter railcars, most of which date to 1969, and $64 million for rebuilding tracks on the Ben Franklin and replacing electric power poles and lines.

Estey and vice chairman Jeff Nash pledged that additional revenue would be used only for transportation-related projects. In the last decade, DRPA has given hundreds of millions of dollars to support such projects as Lincoln Financial Field, the Kimmel Center, the National Constitution Center, and pet projects of local political officials.

DRPA now spends 42 percent of its operating revenue on payments for borrowing, the highest such percentage among toll-collecting agencies in the region.

"A lot of people out there are angry" about past spending, DRPA chief executive officer John J. Matheussen acknowledged. "I hear from them about the Kimmel Center" and other projects. "It's their money, and it's incumbent on us to let them know what we did with it and what our needs are for the future."

Estey and Nash said DRPA had cut staff 12 percent to keep costs down and intended to be more frugal than in the recent past.

Govs. Rendell and Corzine, who appoint the 16 members of the bistate DRPA board, "have asked us to take a very hard look at our finances, and we're doing that," Nash said. "Before we reach out to toll-payers, we want to make sure we have used all the resources we have."