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DRPA's '09 budget includes salary freeze for top aides

The Delaware River Port Authority board yesterday approved its operating and capital budgets for 2009, including a salary freeze for top executives.

The Delaware River Port Authority board yesterday approved its operating and capital budgets for 2009, including a salary freeze for top executives.

Because of recently imposed toll increases on its four bridges and a fare increase on its PATCO High-Speed Line commuter train, the agency expects total revenue to be about $281.5 million next year, an increase of 18.3 percent over 2008.

Spending on operations and payments on the agency's growing debt will total $255.6 million, an increase of 11.7 percent over this year. And the agency expects to deposit $25.9 million in its general fund, up from $9 million this year.

The $104 million capital budget includes about $48 million for repairs and upgrades to the Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, Commodore Barry and Betsy Ross Bridges, and $31 million for PATCO projects. About $20 million is earmarked for security projects.

The operating budget includes a 3 percent pay increase for most of the agency's 966 employees. But the board voted not to give raises to 31 top officials, including chief executive John Matheussen. His salary will remain $219,474.

The biggest expense in the 2009 operating budget - $117 million, or 41 percent of it - is earmarked for payments on DRPA's debt. The agency has a higher debt burden, compared with its income, than any toll-collecting agency in the region.

DRPA raised tolls and fares this year and will raise them again in 2010 to pay for $1 billion in bridge repairs and upgrades to its PATCO rail fleet over the next five years.

The agency expects to borrow $300 million to help pay for those capital expenses.

But, because of the nation's credit crisis, DRPA may not be able to borrow that money until mid-2009, chief financial officer John Hanson said. Until the agency is able to sell bonds to raise the money, it will use some of the $205 million in its general fund to pay for those projects, Hanson said.

He said DRPA might use as much as $30 million from its general fund to tide it over until the bond market loosens up. Since the end of October, DRPA has tapped its general fund for about $1 million for capital projects.

The board approved the budgets unanimously, without comment, after the only member of the public to address the board urged it to find ways to cut.

"I don't think you should approve this," William Love of Medford said. "I think there is fat in here, and I think you should reduce it." He suggested doing away with an unpopular reduction in toll discounts for senior citizens.

The bistate agency's debt is partly a legacy of "economic-development" spending over the last decade. Since 1999, DRPA has spent about $375 million on such projects as Lincoln Financial Field, the Kimmel Center, the National Constitution Center, the Camden Riversharks' minor league baseball stadium, and, most recently, a soccer stadium complex on the Chester waterfront and the National Museum of American Jewish History near Independence Hall.

The DRPA board promised an angry public this year that none of the money raised by the new toll increases would go for economic-development projects.

But nearly $35 million remains from previous borrowing for economic projects on both sides of the Delaware River. There is $21.3 million left for projects on the New Jersey riverfront, and $13.4 million remaining for projects on the Pennsylvania side.