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DRPA board finds common ground, charts new course

Second of two parts. When they gather each month in Camden, the 16 members of the Delaware River Port Authority board no longer segregate themselves by state.

Second of two parts.

When they gather each month in Camden, the 16 members of the Delaware River Port Authority board no longer segregate themselves by state.

The commissioners, who used to sit on the Pennsylvania or the New Jersey side of the board table, are now intermingled. The arrangement is supposed to symbolize their cooperative approach to governing the four Delaware River bridges, the PATCO commuter train and the agency's hundreds of millions of dollars.

Never mind that 17-month standoff between the states over river dredging, which was finally settled last May. Now, commissioners say, they usually work together.

New Jersey is home to most of the commuters the DRPA serves, and Pennsylvania is home to most of the commuters' jobs. And the interests of the two states coincide more than they conflict, said Jeffrey L. Nash, vice-chairman of the board.

"I think the Pennsylvania members understand that the New Jersey commuter working in Philadelphia and paying the Philadelphia wage tax is an important part of that economy," Nash said. "I had heard that Pennsylvania used to not be supportive of PATCO, but I've found the Pennsylvania commissioners do support PATCO. I think our interests are generally the same, but it does depend on the situation."

John H. Estey, the former chief of staff to Gov. Rendell who acts as DRPA chairman in Rendell's absence, said "the sides work together through the chairman and vice-chairman. We poll the members and check with the governors' offices and we work together to try to come to consensus.

"It worked well before we had our dispute [over dredging], and it has worked well since then."

The next big challenge facing the board is deciding how much to increase tolls on the Ben Franklin, Betsy Ross, Walt Whitman and Commodore Barry bridges.

The DRPA's 16-member board, predominantly Democratic lawyers, union leaders and local office-holders, faces a $1.2 billion debt and the prospect of expensive bridge repairs and PATCO train overhauls. And it hopes to expand its rail operations in Center City and South Jersey.

To help pay for it all, the board is expected to raise bridge tolls later this year from the current $3 for cars to $4 or $5.

The DRPA's debt, which requires it to spend about 42 percent of its revenue on interest and principal payments, is partly due to a decade of spending on non-transportation projects in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

After 70 years as a transportation agency, in 1992 the DRPA's mission was broadened to include economic development on both sides of the river, ushering in a period of unprecedented spending.

Since 1999, the DRPA has spent $375 million to help build Kvaerner Philadelphia Shipyard (now Aker Philadelphia Shipyard); Lincoln Financial Field; the Kimmel Center; the National Constitution Center; the New Jersey State Aquarium (now the Adventure Aquarium); the Camden Riversharks minor-league baseball stadium; to spruce up Admiral Wilson Boulevard; and to invest in a still-unbuilt tram across the river.

Most recently, it has approved $10 million to help build a soccer stadium complex on the Chester waterfront and $5 million for the National Museum of American Jewish History near Independence Hall.

Many of the members who presided over the spending spree are gone from the board, including longtime Philadelphia state Sen. Vince Fumo. But, as has always been the case, the 16 unpaid commissioners who now oversee the DRPA's budget and operations are politically connected appointees of the governors of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Neither state has a motorists' representative, although 85 percent of DRPA's $230 million annual operating budget comes from bridge tolls.

Estey said "everybody on my side is a motorist," but he said appointing a commuter representative to one of the seats "is something we should consider."

A Pennsylvania commissioner is chairman; a New Jersey commissioner, vice-chairman. Rendell is the current chairman, though he rarely attends the meetings, delegating the job to Estey.

The board members include vice-chairman and Camden County freeholder Nash, Philadelphia city councilman Frank DiCicco, Philadelphia electricians union boss (and unsuccessful state Senate candidate) John J. Dougherty, and Pennsylvania state representative and former Speaker of the House John Perzel.

The port authority itself is a welcoming home for politicians and their friends: The chief executive officer is former New Jersey state Sen. John J. Matheussen, a Republican; the corporate secretary is former Pennsylvania legislator John A. Lawless, a Democrat; the assistant general manager of PATCO is Cheryl Spicer, wife of indicted former New Jersey state Sen. Wayne Bryant; the Pennsylvania counsel is Rendell's old law firm, Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, represented by Kenneth M. Jarin, who is the husband of DRPA board member and Pennsylvania state treasurer Robin Wiessmann.