The Delaware River Port Authority board approved $76.3 million in economic-development spending last year, more than in any year since 2001.
That followed the DRPA's pledge in July 2008, during public hearings for bridge toll increases, to end its decadelong spending on projects on both sides of the Delaware River.
In December alone, the final month in office for New Jersey's Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine, the Democrat-dominated DRPA board authorized $52.1 million in economic-development spending. The money, all that was left from a massive borrowing for economic development in 1999, was earmarked for projects ranging from the loan fund of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. ($12.9 million) to the Food Bank of New Jersey ($2 million) to a "special project fund" ($2 million).
That final flurry of spending, apparently timed to beat any possible veto by incoming Republican Gov. Christie, brought the DRPA's 12-year total approved for economic development to about $485 million, according to a new accounting provided by the bistate agency.
In addition, the DRPA has spent about $4 million since 2003 on smaller economic-development projects that didn't require board approval. Those ranged from $564,000 to sponsor the minor-league Camden Riversharks to $143,500 for a Philadelphia public relations firm to $433,000 for advertising in local media, including The Inquirer.
The big-ticket spending in 2009 included the President's House memorial near Independence Hall ($3.5 million), demolition of a state prison on a prime piece of Camden waterfront ($6 million), $1.75 million to bring the Army-Navy football game to Philadelphia for six years, a "reallocation of funds for New Jersey waterfront counties" ($11.2 million), and $3.5 million associated with the planned reopening of the Franklin Square subway station at Seventh and Race Streets in Philadelphia.
DRPA officials said last year the economic-development money was not from the new toll increases, and they promised that no new toll revenues would be used for non-transportation-related spending.
The DRPA's latest accounting of its economic-development spending was provided in response to a request by Pennsylvania State Treasurer Robert McCord. McCord is a DRPA board member who is seeking wide-ranging changes in the agency's operations and governance.
On Monday, the DRPA unveiled the details of 18 proposed changes in its rules to be considered by the board at a meeting on Wednesday.
And board member and Philadelphia labor leader John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty called Monday for a postponement of any bridge toll increases until DRPA executives are replaced and rules reforms are made. A $1 increase in tolls is slated to take place next July.
Dougherty also proposed keeping a discount-ticket program for senior citizens for bridge tolls. Current DRPA plans require seniors to get an E-ZPass transponder by Sept. 1 to receive the senior discount on bridge tolls.
The DRPA's proposed rules changes are designed to increase accountability and reduce insider dealing at the politically connected DRPA.
Among the proposals:
An end to hiring relatives of executives and employees.
An end to closed-door "caucus" meetings by DRPA board members.
The right of state auditors to audit the DRPA.
A ban on outside employment for DRPA managers.
Opening all board meetings to the public and requiring the board to follow the Pennsylvania "Right to Know" law.
Forming new ethics rules and a requirement that DRPA officials "avoid the appearance of impropriety."
Restricting vendors who hire former DRPA officials.
A ban on performing political work while on DRPA duty.
"Prohibiting undue influence" by board members, officers, and employees on DRPA decision making.
Requiring all DRPA vendors to disclose political contributions.
Creating a committee to review executive-level compensation.
Christie said Monday: "I would have preferred the DRPA had the common sense to do the 18 things they are going to do Wednesday years ago. . . . I think we still have a lot of work to do on the DRPA, and I think we still have a lot of answers that we need to get."
He said his authorities unit continues to examine the DRPA and its practices.
McCord said Friday he wanted deeper changes than the 18 offered by DRPA chairman John Estey. McCord, saying he wanted to "reform a culture," said he would push the board to go farther by offering proposals to prohibit:
Any board member, manager, or family member from having a financial interest in or being employed by any firm doing business with the DRPA. Such a prohibition would continue for a year after a person left the DRPA.
Any board member or manager from recommending the hiring of any person by a company doing business with the DRPA.
The outside employment of any DRPA executive.
McCord also said he would ask the board to take these immediate steps:
Suspension of all economic-development grants. Until a formal plan is adopted for "the use, consideration, evaluation, and approval" of such grants, all should be halted.
Suspension of new contracts or legal service bills. Except for contracts critical to the safe maintenance of DRPA bridges and railroad, no new ones should be made until a "strong conflict-of-interest policy is adopted to prevent commissioners, executives, and family members from having a financial interest or being employed" in companies doing business with the authority.
Begin a legal investigation into insurance procedures. An oral agreement that apparently requires a Pennsylvania insurance broker, the Graham Co., to share fees and commissions with a New Jersey insurance broker, Willis of New Jersey Inc., needs to be investigated to determine if it is legal and appropriate.
Conduct performance and forensic audits. Such audits are needed to "identify or test the adequacy of internal protocols or safeguards intended to prevent perceived or actual conflicts of interest, potential for self-dealing, or the appropriate nature of various expenditures."
The DRPA operates four Delaware River toll bridges and the PATCO commuter rail line between Philadelphia and South Jersey. The bistate agency, with an annual budget of about $300 million, is governed by a 16-member board, with eight members from each state.
DRPA economic-development spending, by year
2010: $ 1.75 million
2009: 76.3 million
2008: 32.7 million
2007: 7.7 million
2005: 4.9 million
2004: 6.9 million
2003: 34 million
2002: 15.1 million
2001: 88.7 million
2000: 66.4 million
1999: 94.4 million
1998: 56.4 million
1997: 1.4 million
(Amounts are those approved by the board; some funds have not been spent)
*DRPA board did not meet in 2006.
SOURCE: DRPA, as submitted to Pa. state treasurer