Commuters who pay the tolls to cross the Delaware River have reason to worry that their money is being wasted.
Cascading media accounts have found evidence of self-dealing, mismanagement, absurd perks, petty theft, excessive spending, and poor planning at the Delaware River Port Authority, which collects and decides how to spend $300 million a year in tolls and fares.
The DRPA's irresponsible conduct has been shielded from view by an insular culture that allows public business to be done in private. As often happens in that kind of culture, it seems political cronies have been reaping the benefits, including high-paying jobs and contracts.
Only with broad, thorough reform and a profound transformation of its culture can the DRPA earn the public's trust. In short, rule changes being considered at today's DRPA board meeting should constitute the beginning, not the end, of reform.
Authority board members should be taking the time to investigate, identify, and address the agency's long-standing deficiencies. Unfortunately, though, some are rushing to get the DRPA out of the news and "put this behind us" with bylaw amendments that only appear to deal with the public's concerns. An informed look at these amendments shows that many are too vague to be effective or too narrow to address underlying problems.
The toll-paying public deserves more than a quick fix that calms the media but fails to deliver durable change. Short-term actions should be followed by a deliberative, public review process to identify deeper issues and additional measures to ensure an effective turnaround.
It has been 18 years since the legislatures of Pennsylvania and New Jersey changed the laws governing the DRPA. The agency should work with legislators to overhaul those laws.
As fiduciaries entrusted with prudent management of public funds, the DRPA's commissioners ought to evaluate all aspects of the authority's management, policies, spending priorities, and financial and ethical safeguards. Last month, in an effort to encourage that kind of oversight, I directed the Pennsylvania Treasury Department to begin an inquiry into DRPA operations.
While a thorough review is taking place, DRPA business as usual must stop now. To that end, at today's meeting I will move that the DRPA:
Suspend all economic development grants. A recent audit revealed that the DRPA may have funded projects that were not in its master plan, possibly violating the rules governing its operations. The agency should adopt clearly defined criteria and priorities before considering new grants.
Suspend all new professional contracts and payments that are not essential to the maintenance of bridges and rail lines until the agency adopts a conflict-of-interest policy. The policy should prohibit commissioners, managers, and their family members from being employed by or having a financial stake in any DRPA contractor, vendor, or grant recipient. People making public spending decisions should never personally benefit from them.
Investigate an insurance contracting process that may have permitted fee-sharing among brokers without the knowledge of DRPA commissioners.
Conduct a performance and forensic audit of DRPA expenditures.
Again, these measures should be only the beginning of DRPA reform. In government as in business, rushing to "finish" reforms can do more harm than good. Typically, turnarounds require personnel shifts, cultural changes, and consistent oversight. This kind of work requires more than one meeting.
The DRPA must commit to ending "business as usual" and embark on a long-term turnaround that earns the trust of those who pay the tolls.