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Pa., N.J. lawmakers launch effort to rein in DRPA

Republican legislators in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are planning a coordinated effort to change the Delaware River Port Authority and alter its federal charter.

Republican legislators in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are planning a coordinated effort to change the Delaware River Port Authority and alter its federal charter.

Bills will be introduced in Harrisburg and Trenton to prohibit economic-development spending by the DRPA, give Pennsylvania's governor the same veto authority over DRPA actions now held by New Jersey's governor, and require state Senate confirmation of gubernatorial appointments to the DRPA board in Pennsylvania, as is now done in New Jersey.

The bills would also:

Require a two-thirds majority of the board to approve any toll increases on the DRPA's four toll bridges.

Prohibit free tolls or car allowances for DRPA employees or officials.

Limit top salaries to the amount authorized for the states' governors (currently, $187,256 a year in Pennsylvania and $175,000 in New Jersey).

"The DRPA has come under increasing scrutiny over recent years for its unacceptable practices, including its patronage hiring, lack of transparency, lavish perks, excessive spending and debt, and burdensome toll increases," Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery) said in a memo to his state House colleagues, outlining provisions of the proposed legislation.

The DRPA is a bistate authority that owns and operates the PATCO commuter rail line and the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Commodore Barry, and Betsy Ross toll bridges between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Its operating budget this year is $278 million.

The authority has been under investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the last year for hundreds of millions of dollars of politically connected economic-development spending.

New Jersey Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R., Essex), who is leading the legislative effort in his state, said:

"For years, the DRPA has squandered hundreds of millions of public dollars on outlandish perks for patronage hires and politically motivated contracts for economic development unrelated to its bridges and rail line. As a result, this agency has saddled the people with toll and fare hikes, lengthy delays, and a lack of handicap accessibility due to its negligence of a debt-riddled railway."

Pennsylvania Sen. John Rafferty (R., Montgomery), the Senate Transportation Committee chairman, said some changes had already been made by the DRPA board, prodded by the governors of the two states since 2010.

"I think they have made some progress, but not far enough," Rafferty said. "We want to prevent future boards from going back to the old ways."

Changing the federal charter that governs how the DRPA operates is not easy, requiring approval of the legislatures and governors of both states as well as Congress and the president.

The compact was last modified in 1992, when the legislatures and Congress gave the DRPA the authority to spend money on economic development in the eight-county "port district."

The proposed new changes to the compact would take away that authority.

The DRPA last approved development spending in 2011, when it spent the final $20 million of nearly $500 million borrowed and spent on such things as stadiums, museums, and concert halls over 14 years.

Now that the money is gone, the DRPA board has said it will no longer spend money on anything not related to its core mission of transporting people across the Delaware River.

Pennacchio said legislators "cannot trust that under future administrations it will properly adhere to regulations that agency officials claim are working."

"This legislation is a wake-up call to the DRPA that representatives in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania will not tolerate any more abuse and waste on the backs of our residents. The people have long been at their breaking point with the DRPA, and only our state governments can ensure they will get lasting accountability, oversight, and transparency."

The bills will be introduced in both states next month, the lawmakers said.

New Jersey Democrats, who are the majority party in both houses of the state legislature, did not respond to a request for comment on the proposed legislation.

DRPA spokesman Tim Ireland said the agency had no comment on the proposals since "no legislator from either state has solicited input from the DRPA, and to date, no legislation has been introduced."

215-854-4587 @nussbaumpaul