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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: February 11, 2009
Byline: Paul Nussbaum

AAA to DRPA: Don't spend $9.5 million on projects

The AAA auto club, citing motorist outrage, has asked Gov. Rendell and the board of the Delaware River Port Authority to reverse plans to spend $9.5 million on non-transportation projects in Camden and Philadelphia, including the President's House memorial near Independence Hall.

In a letter to Rendell, who is chairman of the DRPA, AAA Mid-Atlantic vice president Ronald W. Kosh wrote, "We believe your request directly contradicts in principle a DRPA promise not to use toll revenue for economic development."

"Toll revenues from motorists should not be used for economic development projects, especially at a time when our roads and bridges need money."

The DRPA board is to vote next Wednesday on a plan to spend $11 million on a half-dozen development projects: in Philadelphia, $3.5 million for a President's House memorial at Sixth and Market Streets and $2.5 million for a restaurant on Franklin Square and the Lights of Liberty show; in Camden, $1.5 million for a proposed medical school, $1.5 million for infrastructure improvements along Admiral Wilson Boulevard to aid expansion of the Campbell Soup Co., and $2 million for demolition of the city-owned Parkade building near City Hall.

AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Catherine L. Rossi said the auto club did not object to the $1.5 million earmarked for improvements on Admiral Wilson Boulevard, as that could be considered transportation-related.

The auto club's campaign is the latest effort on behalf of commuters to halt the 15-year-old practice of using DRPA toll money for economic development on both sides of the river. Tolls provide 86 percent of the funding for the port authority, which operates four Delaware River bridges and the PATCO High-Speed commuter rail line.

Since 1999, the authority has spent about $375 million on such projects as Lincoln Financial Field, the Kimmel Center, the National Constitution Center, the Camden Riversharks' minor-league baseball stadium, and, most recently, a soccer stadium complex on the Chester waterfront and the National Museum of American Jewish History near Independence Hall.

When the deeply indebted DRPA increased auto tolls by $1 on its bridges last summer, its top executives promised angry motorists at two public hearings that they would use the new revenue only for transportation-related expenses. But they noted that about $35 million remaining from previous borrowing could be used for development spending.

The $11 million is being drawn from that money, borrowed in 1999, and repaid with current toll revenue.

"We suggest that money be more wisely used to pay off the exorbitant DRPA debt or reduce growing DRPA operating costs or mitigate escalating toll hikes," Kosh wrote in his letters to Rendell, DRPA board members, and chief executive officer John J. Matheussen.

"Borrowed money is being paid back right now by the motorists who are paying higher tolls and transit riders who are paying higher fares," Kosh wrote.

News that the DRPA was again funding non-transportation projects frustrated some motorists yesterday.

"These projects have nothing to do with bridges or trains or transportation," said Frank Gilanelli, of Moorestown. "A soccer field? How does that help me? Sometimes they say it will increase DRPA income and revenue. . . . Well, what about my income and revenue?"

Tom Fitzgerald, who lives in Marlton and works at the U.S. Postal Service distribution plant near Philadelphia International Airport, said, "I'm a working-class guy, and this really hurts me. My tolls keep going up and up and up, and they have money that could help alleviate that."

A spokesman for Rendell said, "The governor appreciates the view of the AAA but continues to believe that investment in the President's House is prudent and worthwhile."

Ed Kasuba, spokesman for the DRPA, declined to comment.

Rendell announced late last month that he would seek money from the port authority to complete construction funding for the memorial, to commemorate the site where George Washington and John Adams lived and where Washington held nine slaves during Philadelphia's stint as the nation's capital from 1790 to 1800.

 

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