IT WOULD BE difficult to find a more worthy project than the President's House memorial planned for Independence Mall: It will commemorate not only President George Washington, who lived there, but also recognize and honor his enslaved servants.
The project likely would be delayed without the $3.5 million appropriated for it Wednesday by the Delaware River Port Authority. Auditor General Jack Wagner was the only dissenting vote.
But just because a project is worthy and needs money doesn't mean it should be financed by bridge tolls or fares on the PATCO High Speed Line. That money should go toward DRPA's core responsibility: the maintenance of four bridges and the transit system that cross the Delaware.
The same goes for the remaining $7.5 million doled out by DRPA this week, divided among two projects in Philadelphia - the Lights of Liberty show and a restaurant on Franklin Square - and two in Camden. Or the $350 million spent over the last 17 years on things like the Camden Aquarium and the Riversharks stadium, a professional soccer field for Chester and aid to the Army-Navy game.
There's no question that most of these projects have or will bring good value to the region. There is a question - and it couldn't be more timely - of who should pay for them.
If projects deserve public support, the cost shouldn't be shouldered, even in part, by people who have no way to hold accountable the unelected members of DRPA, and have no other choice in crossing the river.
DRPA's charter was changed in 1992 to allow it to contribute to economic-development projects on both sides of the river, but this is a different time, even if politicians like Gov. Rendell have a hard time recognizing it. Rendell chairs the authority and appoints six of the eight Pennsylvania members. All eight New Jersey DRPA members are appointed by Gov. Jon Corzine.
In particular, DRPA's huge debt and debt service - and the pressing need for repairs on bridges - led to a $1 increase in bridge tolls and a 10-percent fare hike on PATCO. The $35 million left from a bond issue that DRPA wants to keep for economic development would pay for only a small fraction of necessary repairs or debt service on DRPA's $1.2 billion debt. But that would be a fraction less taken from commuters.
Besides, the funneling of DRPA money to certain projects favored by the politicians who do the appointing looks too much like "walking around money" in the Pennsylvania Legislature or the demon "earmarks" in Congress - money allocated not according to a considered plan, but by a patron's political juice.
That might have been more palatable before the fiscal crisis illuminated more pressing needs, like the region's crumbling infrastructure. But no more. A few state legislators in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania want to return DRPA's mission to what it was before it got into the economic-development business.
That's a bridge worth crossing. *