In an "austere" budget with no pay increases scheduled for most of its workers, the Delaware River Port Authority plans to spend $295.7 million in 2010, a 5 percent increase over this year's $281.5 million operating budget.

Most of the increase will go for higher payments on the DRPA's growing debt.

The proposed budget for actually operating the four Delaware River toll bridges and the PATCO commuter trains is $129.9 million, up 1.2 percent.

The proposed capital budget, for such things as bridge maintenance and PATCO railcar improvements, is $142 million, up from $104 million this year.

DRPA officials unveiled the proposed 2010 budgets yesterday. The agency's board is to vote on the budgets tomorrow.

John Matheussen, chief executive of the DRPA, called the new budgets "very lean" and described them as "reflective of what the entire economy is going through."

The operating budget will keep salaries and wages at 2009 levels, except for 230 PATCO train operators and mechanics represented by the Teamsters union, whose contract provides for a 3 percent wage hike in 2010.

Contracts for the DRPA's three other groups of union-represented employees expire at the end of this month, and chief financial officer John Hanson said, "it is not our intent to negotiate any contract increases."

The DRPA will have more money to spend in 2010 because bridge tolls will go up in September, to $5 for autos from the current $4. PATCO train fares will go up 10 percent at the same time.

The DRPA can expect to collect about $258 million in tolls. PATCO fares will bring in about $24 million in 2010, leaving motorists to provide a $22.1 million subsidy to cover the rest of the cost of PATCO rail operations.

To pay for its ambitious - and expensive - capital program, the DRPA is preparing to borrow up to $510 million. That would increase the DRPA's total debt to about $1.7 billion.

The authority's debt burden, compared with its income, is the highest among the region's toll-collecting agencies. The biggest expense in its 2010 operating budget - $130.4 million, or 44 percent - is payments on debt.

The DRPA plans to spend about $1 billion over five years on capital projects such as redecking the Walt Whitman Bridge, rebuilding PATCO cars, and installing an express E-ZPass lane on the Betsy Ross Bridge.

The agency's large debt is partly a legacy of its spending on controversial economic-development projects in Philadelphia and Camden.

In the last decade, the agency has spent about $386 million on sports arenas, museums, concert halls, and other projects, much to commuters' dismay.

When the DRPA increased tolls on its Delaware River bridges to $4 last year, it promised it would not use new revenue for economic development. But it said that about $35 million from previous borrowing could be used for such projects.

In February, the DRPA board voted to spend $11 million for six projects, including $3.5 million for a President's House memorial near Independence Hall.

Even as its spending grows, the DRPA faces lower traffic counts on its bridges, because of higher tolls and a weaker economy. About 53.4 million vehicles crossed the bridges in 2008. This year, the number is expected to drop to about 51 million, and in 2010, to 50.3 million vehicles.

PATCO ridership also is expected to be down slightly in 2010, to 10 million passengers, from 10.03 million this year.

Tomorrow's board meeting, scheduled for 10 a.m., will be open to the public at the agency's headquarters at One Port Center in Camden, adjacent to the Adventure Aquarium.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.