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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: November 7, 2010
Byline: Paul Nussbaum

DRPA's trove of unspent millions

Some of the $54.5 million in economic-development aid is contractually set, but much could be redirected.

The Delaware River Port Authority still has about $54.5 million in unspent economic-development funds.

That's equivalent to $1 in tolls for every round-trip across its toll bridges for a year.

The money was allocated over the last three years to recipients ranging from the Food Bank of South Jersey to counties as well as for undetermined "special projects, but it remains unspent, DRPA records show.

Some of the money is waiting for designated work to happen — such as the construction of the President's House memorial near Independence Hall and the reopening of the long-dormant PATCO Franklin Square subway station — and some is waiting for recipients to figure out how to spend it.

Much of the money could be shifted to other purposes, such as deferring toll increases or paying down debt, if the DRPA board elected to do that. Some, though, "is constrained by contractual obligations," DRPA spokesman Ed Kasuba said.

In December, the DRPA board voted to delay a scheduled toll increase for 10 months — until July 1, 2011 — by reallocating $8 million in economic-development money to help offset the loss of the anticipated income.

One board member, Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner, said the "smart thing to do would be to pay down debt . . . or eliminate the need for future debt by using it for things like the revamping of the Walt Whitman Bridge."

Wagner said a $2 million "special projects" fund "especially concerns me." About $1.87 million remains in the fund, which was created in December to pay for projects selected by board chairman John Estey and chief executive John Matheussen.

"They represent the board, and I'm a board member, and I know nothing about this," Wagner said.

His office is seeking information from DRPA officials about the special projects fund, he said.

Shifting economic-development money from one use to another is a time-honored DRPA practice: In the past decade, the agency has reallocated about $45.6 million, according to DRPA accounts.

Estey said he would not support further delays in the toll increase, because bond-rating agencies have warned such a move could hurt the DRPA's financial ratings. He noted that Gov.-elect Tom Corbett might have a different view when he puts his appointees on the board in January.

"Without specific proposals, I can't comment on paying down debt," Estey said. He will look for DRPA-related projects, such as the Franklin Square reopening, "for economic-development funds that have not been committed."

Next month, the board will set the DRPA's 2011 budget, which will go to members Nov. 22 and be made public at a board meeting Dec. 1. The board will vote on the budget at a public meeting Dec. 8.

Most of the DRPA's money comes from tolls on the Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, Commodore Barry, and Betsy Ross Bridges. Last year, the agency collected $242.6 million in bridge tolls, 86 percent of its total revenue of $281.7 million.

Many commuters have long objected to the DRPA's use of tolls for economic-development projects, such as sports stadiums, museums, and concert halls.

In the last 12 years, the DRPA has spent about $500 million on economic development, contributing to a debt of $1.4 billion, which consumes about 40 percent of the agency's revenue.

A spokesman for a motorists organization said bridge tolls and PATCO fares should "be used solely for their intended purposes — maintaining the authority's bridges and the PATCO system."

"Many of these economic-development projects may be worthy. Diverting DRPA revenues to pay for them is not," said Rick Remington, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "DRPA should focus on reducing its debt, avoiding toll and fare increases, and tending to its core infrastructure needs."

In the last two years, DRPA officials repeatedly have said they are out of the economic-development business.

Most recently, on Aug. 18, the board again voted to end the practice of spending toll revenue on projects not directly related to operating the bridges and the PATCO commuter rail line between Philadelphia and South Jersey.

The resolution said the board "hereby prohibits the use of any funds controlled by DRPA and PATCO, whether those funds are in existence now or will be generated or received in the future, to be used for projects that are not directly connected to the assets under the board's direct control."

 

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