BY JEFFREY L. NASH
During the last few months, the Delaware River Port Authority has become a model for reform. The DRPA has adopted 32 changes to make the agency more efficient, transparent, and accountable to the public. We’re cutting spending wherever possible through our “Lean Government” initiative and establishing stricter controls over salaries and contracts.
In short, we are changing the way business has been done for decades – creating a more progressive, responsive agency that inspires greater public confidence.
One of our most significant decisions was ending the practice of using any new toll revenue for economic development and other community purposes. The message from the public was loud and clear: Money collected from toll-payers at the region’s bridges and riders on the PATCO High-Speed Line should be used for transportation purposes only. We listened.
The question of whether the DRPA should finance community projects has been debated since 1988, when the nation was mired in a recession, and governments desperately sought new resources to fund regional projects. Many believed that DRPA toll money should be used for that purpose, and agencies like ours were authorized to do just that.
Several years later, the DRPA commissioners raised the bridge tolls from $2 to $3, enabling the authority to borrow $900 million. About $550 million paid for a five-year capital-improvement project for the bridges and PATCO, with the balance used to help underwrite economic development in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
From 2000 to 2002, the DRPA allocated $350 million to help finance a number of major projects, including the Navy Yard conversion; Camden waterfront revitalization; construction of Citizens Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Field; and Admiral Wilson Boulevard demolition. The projects created thousands of jobs and serve today as an economic engine for the region.
However, the DRPA also funded many questionable projects. Millions of dollars were spent on an aerial tram, a bistate laser-light show, and an aquarium submarine simulator. None of those projects came to fruition, giving rise to public suspicion about DRPA spending.
Public anger grew as bridge tolls and speed-line fares continued to rise. It didn’t seem to matter that only money from 1999 has been used for economic development or that only 40 cents of each $5 toll is used to pay back the bonds borrowed for that purpose 12 years ago.
What does matter is that the DRPA has recognized and embraced the need for a major shake-up, with many of the reforms we have adopted reflecting recommendations of a coming report by the New Jersey Comptroller’s Office. Perhaps the most compelling change – the decision to no longer help fund economic-development projects – underscores our resolve to listen to the public.
It would therefore seem contrary to the agency’s new mission, as well as to public opinion, to continue financing community projects. For example, the DRPA has been criticized for not funding community food banks and several other South Jersey projects as promised in 2009. These remaining commitments stem from funding put aside for economic development in 1999, and we plan to carefully reexamine each of them. Some critical projects may be funded, but a portion of this money will be returned to pay back debt.
The DRPA is determined to earn the public trust. It will take serious reforms within the agency, bipartisan cooperation between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and a commitment to be open and responsive to the public. With the decision to fund no new economic-development projects and to use toll and fare revenue to pay only for the commuters’ safe transportation across the Delaware River, we took a major step in demonstrating that commitment.
Jeffrey L. Nash is vice chairman of the Delaware River Port Authority and a Camden County freeholder