The summer ferry that crosses the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Camden could be in jeopardy as the Delaware River Port Authority looks for ways to save money.
DRPA board members on Monday questioned using $1.2 million in bridge-toll revenue to pay for new or improved ferry docks in Camden and Philadelphia.
"I seriously think we need to look at that," said Pennsylvania board member Robert W. Bogle. "Is it a project we need to continue to fund?"
The River Link ferry runs during the summer between Penn's Landing in Philadelphia and Wiggins Park in Camden, and this year, it carried 159,638 visitors to such sites as the Susquehanna Bank Center concert arena, the Camden River Sharks ballpark, and the Adventure Aquarium.
The service has been operated for the DRPA by Hornblower Marine Services, which keeps most of the ticket money and pays to run the ferry. The DRPA this year received $57,500 from Hornblower for the ferry contract, which is up for rebidding next year.
The DRPA has budgeted $740,000 next year and $500,000 in 2012 for a new ferry dock in Camden and an upgraded Philadelphia dock at Penn's Landing. The federal government is slated to pay 80 percent, about $5 million, of the cost of the ferry terminals.
As the DRPA board wrestled with a budget for 2011 that includes unpopular increases in bridge tolls and PATCO train fares, the ferry spending drew fire.
"Why are we doing the ferry?" Bogle asked during a DRPA budget session Monday. "We're investing $740,000 to make $57,500?"
Jeff Nash, the DRPA board vice chairman, agreed: "Before we spend a dime on these projects, we need to take a very hard look at the ferry."
The DRPA took over operation of the ferry in 2000, and DRPA Chief Executive John Matheussen said it had generated tourism, but not much money for the port authority.
"Is it a moneymaker for the DRPA? No," Matheussen said.
But for destinations on the Camden waterfront, such as Adventure Aquarium, the ferry "is an important piece to the overall success and appeal" of the attractions, said Greg Charbeneau, executive director of the aquarium.
He said 21 percent of the aquarium's summer visitors arrived by ferry.
"Partnership between both Delaware waterfronts is a wonderful way to inspire and sustain economic growth," he said. "The ferry also helps to alleviate vehicle congestion in the streets of Camden during the peak summer season."
The DRPA board is to vote Wednesday on operating and capital budgets for next year.
The proposed operating budget of $265 million assumes a 10 percent PATCO fare increase Jan. 1 and a $1 bridge-toll increase for autos July 1.
Those approved increases are on the table again, as the board looks for a way to postpone the hikes without causing financial-rating agencies to downgrade the DRPA's bond rating and demand immediate payment of about $220 million.
"I feel between a rock and a hard place in many ways," Nash said Monday. "It's easy to say, 'Let's defer [the increase],' but it has to be done responsibly and not cause a downgrade that would cost consumers more."
Several board members, including Philadelphia labor leader John Dougherty and Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner, have called for the agency to use unspent economic-development funds to postpone a toll hike.
The DRPA has more than $50 million in unspent economic-development funding, and about $28 million of that is not contractually obligated for projects. That $28 million would provide as much revenue as six months of a $1 toll increase.
The DRPA already delayed the bridge-toll increase once. The increase was to have taken place in September. It was put off for 10 months when the DRPA board reallocated $8 million in economic-development funding last December.
But the agency's chief financial officer, John Hanson, said the unspent economic-development money couldn't bail out the DRPA now the way it did last year.
Because the DRPA has since borrowed an additional $308 million, it needs ongoing revenue, not a onetime boost, Hanson said.
A toll increase would provide that, he said, but a shift of economic-development money would not.
Wagner's representative on Monday suggested that a 50-cent toll increase might mollify Wall Street, while limiting the pain for commuters.
That proposal is one of several the board will weigh Wednesday in its budget deliberations.