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DRPA panel advances economic-development spending plan

After contentious debate, a nearly $20 million package for New Jersey nontransportation projects moved closer to passage Wednesday when a Delaware River Port Authority committee approved it.

After contentious debate, a nearly $20 million package for New Jersey nontransportation projects moved closer to passage Wednesday when a Delaware River Port Authority committee approved it.

The DRPA finance committee voted to spend the last $29.9 million of its controversial economic-development funds. About $10 million is to be returned to DRPA for capital projects, such as bridge repairs; $19.7 million is to go to local food banks and projects, including a new cancer center, student housing for Rutgers-Camden, and Cooper River rowing facilities.

The full board is to vote Wednesday on the economic-development spending. It also will consider the agency's budget for 2012, which received committee blessing without dissent.

About a dozen representatives of groups slated to get the economic-development money urged the committee to approve the spending. From food-bank operators to rowing organizers to the chancellor of Rutgers-Camden, they said the money would improve lives, boost the economy, and aid local institutions.

Two board members, who represented Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner and Pennsylvania Treasurer Rob McCord, objected to using any money for nontransportation purposes.

Wagner's representative, Rob Teplitz, was especially critical, arguing that the board would be violating its own commitment to spend bridge toll money on transportation projects only.

"We need to focus on our trains and bridges," Teplitz said. "It's not the responsibility of this agency to make sure Camden County has a world-class regatta . . . or even well-stocked food banks."

Teplitz criticized Camden County Freeholder Jeffrey Nash, who is vice chairman of the DRPA board and chairman of the finance committee, for engineering an "immaculate conception" of the project list, pushing through the spending plan without legal or financial analysis or committee input.

"You unilaterally drive the process forward," Teplitz told Nash.

Nash, leader of the board's New Jersey delegation, said he made decisions about who would get the money after consulting with Gov. Christie's office.

Economic-development money for Pennsylvania projects was all spent before Gov. Corbett took over as DRPA chairman this year. Corbett has said he wants the agency to return to its core mission of spending only for transportation-related projects.

Most Pennsylvania members of the committee said Wednesday they supported the final outlay to end the long controversy over use of the money.

"We've got to get beyond the remnants of the gridlock that plagued the agency," Pennsylvania board member David Simon said. "We have to put it to bed once and for all."

The money is to be spent as follows:

$6 million for a cancer center being built at Cooper University Hospital that is scheduled for completion in spring 2013. The chairman of the hospital board is South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross.

$4.3 million for unspecified development in Camden by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, using money left from $6 million DRPA provided to tear down Riverfront State Prison in 2009.

$4 million for Cooper River rowing-course improvements and other waterfront amenities the the Camden County Parks Department plans.

$2 million for student housing at Rutgers-Camden, now under construction and expected to be ready for occupancy by August.

$2 million for the Food Bank of South Jersey.

$1 million for road improvements for an office, residential, and commercial development at the PATCO Ferry Avenue Station near Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden.

$400,000 to stabilize Gloucester City's Freedom Pier.

The $29.9 million is what's left of nearly $500 million borrowed and spent over 14 years on economic-development projects such as sports stadiums, concert halls, and museums.

With much less debate, the finance committee sent to the full board the proposed DRPA budget for 2012.

The agency's operating budget will be $126.8 million, essentially the same as this year. Total spending, including debt payments and biennial bridge-inspection costs, is slated to be $275 million, a 4 percent increase from this year.

The budget includes no increases in bridge tolls or PATCO train fares.

Most employees will not get raises, though the 300 workers who are members of the Operating Engineers union are contracted to receive a 3 percent boost. And DRPA's new spokesman, Tim Ireland, may get a 7 percent hike from his current $107,000 salary after the agency's departing spokesman, Ed Kasuba, retires in March, chief executive John Matheussen said. Kasuba is paid $95,000.

The budget assumes DRPA will need to borrow about $350 million next year to continue to fund its long-term capital budget, for such things as bridge repairs and refurbished PATCO railcars.

That will bring DRPA's total debt to about $1.7 billion.