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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: February 19, 2009
Byline: Paul Nussbaum

DRPA OKs $11 million for six projects

The Delaware River Port Authority board voted yesterday to give $11 million to six controversial development projects in Camden and Philadelphia, including $3.5 million for a President's House memorial near Independence Hall.

After hearing from area residents who supported the projects and commuters who opposed spending bridge toll revenue on them, the board approved the plan with one dissenting vote.

Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner was the only vote against. His representative on the board said Wagner favored the projects but disagreed with using toll revenue to pay for them.

In addition to funds for the President's House memorial at Sixth and Market Streets, $2.5 million was approved for a restaurant on Franklin Square and for the Lights of Liberty show, both in Philadelphia. In Camden, $1.5 million was approved for a proposed medical school, $1.5 million for infrastructure improvements along the Admiral Wilson Boulevard, and $2 million for demolition of an office building and nearby improvements.

After the DRPA vote, the AAA Mid-Atlantic auto club said it would ask Gov. Corzine to veto the plan. Corzine has 10 business days to veto a board action after he receives minutes from the meeting.

In an overflowing board room, about 20 citizens spoke before the vote, evenly divided for and against a spending proposal that has stoked strong emotions.

The debate was essentially a dispute between those paying and those receiving the money.

Both sides rallied their backers to make their cases to the DRPA. The AAA urged its members to attend the meeting and to send messages, and a group that supports the President's House memorial to early American slaves brought 34 fellow advocates in by bus.

AAA spokeswoman Catherine L. Rossi waved a stack of letters that she said represented 15,000 anti-spending e-mails sent to board members and Gov. Rendell.

Michael Coard, founder of the Avenging the Ancestors group, countered with a fistful of petitions with 2,500 signatures in support of the President's House project.

The sides were a study in contrasts. Opponents of the spending were primarily suburban white commuters, and supporters were primarily black and Hispanic urban residents.

One supporter, Cliff Brock of Philadelphia, noted what he saw as a racially tinged disparity.

"Throughout the last 15 years, people did not refute the spending," Brock said. "Why all of a sudden now, with people of color involved, we're getting all this backlash? What's good for the goose should be good for the gander."

Supporters of the spending and most of the DRPA board said economic-development funding was crucial to the region, especially to Camden. Opponents said it wasn't commuters' responsibility to pay for it with their bridge tolls.

"I'm not here to talk to the puppets, but to the puppeteers in Harrisburg and Trenton," said Frank Gilanelli, a commuter from Moorestown, referring to the governors of Pennsylvania and New Jersey who appoint the 16 DRPA board members. "I don't object to the projects. I object to the way you're funding them. . . . It's just not right."

Sean Brown, a Rutgers University-Camden student who is co-chairman of Camden's Cooper Landing Improvement Association, said the projects would make his city "safer and more prosperous."

Camden officials, including Mayor Gwendolyn A. Faison and chief operating officer Theodore Z. Davis, said the money would help reverse decades of neglect and blight in the city.

"Have a vision. Think ahead," implored Faison. "Think of the entire city and put the money where it should be."

Paul Molnar, a commuter from Mount Laurel, told the board that the projects "are probably very worthy," but since they lack sufficient funding, "they look to you to dig into your trough to feed their hungry mouths."

Rossi chastised the board for regarding the DRPA as a "personal political piggy bank" to be raided for favored projects.

"The DRPA seems to be comfortable operating off borrowed money being paid on the backs of motorists," Rossi said. "You approved toll hikes last fall, saying there wasn't enough money coming in the front door to pay for maintaining and operating bridges, roads and transit.

"So now you push money out the back door to projects that have nothing to do with transportation improvements. It's a shell game that doesn't make much sense to toll-paying motorists."

Jeffrey L. Nash, a Camden County freeholder and vice chairman of the DRPA board, said the Camden projects would create 1,000 construction jobs and help make central Camden a regional transit hub.

Board member Kenneth I. Trujillo acknowledged the DRPA's history of spending "has not always been a great one." But he said the agency "cannot be simply a micromanager." Its economic development authority makes it a force for good, he said.

"What we do here today will necessarily impact the region for years to come," he said.

The DRPA's charter was amended in 1992 to permit economic-development spending. Since then, it has spent more than $375 million on sports arenas, museums, concert halls and other projects, much to commuters' dismay.

When the DRPA increased tolls on its four Delaware River bridges last summer to $4, it promised it would not use new revenue for economic development. But it said that about $35 million from previous borrowing could be used for such spending.

That was the fund the board tapped yesterday for the $11 million.

Several speakers used yesterday's meeting as an opportunity to call for the DRPA to rescind its 2003 decision to give $500,000 to move the Barnes Foundation art collection to Philadelphia from Merion.

DRPA officials said a change in the Barnes funding was not currently being considered.

 

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