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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: February 18, 2009
Byline: Jack Wagner, Pennsylvania's auditor general

Commentary: Should DRPA fund President’s House? No

Agency should stay on mission

I believe government agencies should not try to perform tasks for which they are ill-equipped. I have tried to apply this commonsense principle to my service on the Delaware River Port Authority board.

DRPA was created to perform a few core government functions: to provide safe transportation infrastructure, including a high-speed rail system, and to collect and manage toll revenue for certain Delaware River bridges — the Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, Commodore Barry, and Betsy Ross.

Over the past two decades, the DRPA has ventured into economic-development projects outside these core functions. This is not what it was created for.

In February 2008, I voted against the DRPA's contribution of $10 million to a riverfront soccer stadium in Delaware County. I believe the authority has no business meddling in economic development when it is already saddled with debt.

This firm conviction is behind my intent to vote today against providing $3.5 million to the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. to build the President's House memorial.

I fully understand and appreciate the importance of tourism to Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. The Liberty Bell Center attracts more than two million visitors a year, creating thousands of jobs and pumping millions of dollars into the economy.

Rehabilitation of the President's House site, which accommodated the United States' first two presidents as well as nine enslaved Africans, will certainly appeal to Americans who are interested in learning more about our Founding Fathers and our history of racial injustice.

I wholeheartedly support the project, but not the method for funding it. The same can be said for other DRPA "economic-development" projects that I have been compelled to vote against, such as the $250,000 contribution to last year's Army-Navy football game.

The four bridges operated by DRPA provide vital transportation links for commuters and businesses in Southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. Drivers log 4.6 million round-trips across the four spans each month, and 850,000 riders use the PATCO rail system.

The bridges and rail line need to be maintained and improved, and that requires investment. An estimated $1 billion is needed over the next five years to pay for bridge repairs and PATCO cars.

Because of these important capital needs, I reluctantly voted in favor of a toll increase last year — but only after securing an assurance that DRPA's future revenue would be used only for transportation-related purposes.

Given the financial crisis facing Pennsylvania and New Jersey, now is not the time for DRPA to be expanding its obligations. We must do all we can to protect our precious financial resources and make sure that our first investment is in the four bridges and the rail system under our purview.

The President's House is a worthwhile project that will not perish without a grant from the DRPA. There are myriad other potential sources of support, including the federal government. In fact, the President's House sounds precisely like the kind of "shovel-ready" project that the federal economic-stimulus package is supposed to assist.

I will continue to use my seat on the DRPA board to advocate that all of the agency's money be spent wisely on its core mission: providing a safe, effective means of travel for residents of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The auditor general is an ex officio member of the DRPA board.

 

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