The Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) resumed its controversial "economic development" program yesterday, doling out millions of dollars to projects having nothing to do with the Authority’s primary mission of operating and maintaining the four major bridges in Philadelphia. Many politicians in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have close affiliations with these projects.
At its Thursday board meeting, the DRPA Projects Committee approved $11 million in grants to be spent on numerous initiatives in the cities of Philadelphia and Camden. The full board is expected to approve the expenditures at its Feb. 18 board meeting.
In Pennsylvania, the authority will spend $3.5 million for the restoration of an historic house in Philadelphia. An additional $2.5 million was allocated for several initiatives in the historic section of Philadelphia, including the development of a "permanent food structure" in Franklin Square and a technology update for the "Lights of Liberty" show. Lights of Liberty was the idea of then-mayor Ed Rendell to add an evening attraction to the historic district’s landscape.
The DRPA also authorized a resolution to give $250,000 to the Philadelphia Convention and Visitor’s Bureau "for expenses incurred hosting the 2008 Army-Navy game." The military academies played the game almost two months ago.
According to the DRPA, Philadelphia hosted its eighth straight sellout Army-Navy game, had a national television audience of three million, and was the recipient of $35 million in "total economic output." When questioned about why the DRPA felt it necessary to pay out a quarter-million dollars given the game’s economic success, the answer given by CEO John Matheussen was that the Army-Navy game was good for the Philadelphia region.
In New Jersey, the authority passed a resolution to spend $5 million for "educational and infrastructure improvements" in Camden. Projects include the demolition of a city-owned downtown building and recreational improvements related to Roosevelt Park. The DRPA will also be involved in the "site acquisition, demolition, relocation, and other costs in connection with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ)’s development of an Academic Research Facility." According to discussions at the DRPA press conference, however, the decision by the UMDNJ to move forward with the research facility has not yet been approved.
A significant portion of the New Jersey economic development funds will be allocated to public infrastructure improvements along Admiral Wilson Boulevard in connection with the expansion of the Campbell Soup Company, a business with a market value of $11 billion.
The DRPA will also fund the West Jersey Line, a 17 mile private railroad in Salem County. It will primarily serve two companies in that region.
Port Authority Vice Chairman Jeffrey Nash, who voted in favor of these projects, also serves as an elected Camden County Freeholder. With the exception of the railroad, all of the New Jersey economic development projects approved at the board meeting are located within Mr. Nash’s district.
Commuters became enraged last year when tolls increased by 33%, a measure taken because DRPA didn’t have the $1.1 billion it needed for bridge repairs. While tolls will rise another 33% next year, the Authority will also be issuing bonds later this year to raise additional revenue for capital improvement repairs. The total bond amount could exceed $500 million.
The Port Authority’s nearly $400 million in economic development grants have come under intense scrutiny in recent months as politicians, the media, and watchdog organizations have increasingly questioned why the Port Authority continues to spend money on non-bridge related projects, especially in difficult economic times.
The Authority has a debt of more than $1.2 billion, and 76 per cent of every dollar is allocated to salaries, benefits and debt service.
Pennsylvania state senator John Rafferty, R-44, Chester and Montgomery Counties, expressed his concern regarding economic development spending by the DRPA.
"They can say all they want that they had this economic development money in reserve, but it should be allocated to rail lines and transportation. The purpose of the DRPA should be to fulfill the same mission of every other government agency— to provide safety, health and welfare to the people for whom they are responsible," he said. "And you do that by having bridges and rail lines that are up to code and meeting the needs of the consumers. It’s not investing in all these other projects!", he added.
Sen. Rafferty discussed how much the DRPA changed after being granted economic development authority in the early 1990’s. "We’ve gotten so far away from the scope of what was intended for that agency, that I think the best way to (rectify the situation) is have the federal government eliminate the economic development authority and give us (the state legislatures) the authority to start looking into this," he stated.
"The DRPA should stop being a wish-list for governors to pull money for projects," Sen. Rafferty stated.
A spokeswoman for United States Senator Arlen Specter, R-Pa, told The Bulletin that Mr. Specter is aware of concerns regarding the DRPA’s use of funds and is monitoring the matter.
The relationship of Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, the Port Authority’s self-appointed Chairman, to his former law firm Ballard Spahr has also been called into question, as Ballard has received nearly $3 million in legal fees from the Authority since Rendell’s election in 2002. In the three years prior to that election, Ballard received only $25,000 from the Port Authority.
John Estey, former chief of staff to Gov. Rendell who routinely chairs board meetings on the governor’s behalf, is a partner at Ballard. He regularly votes to receive and authorize the DRPA’s monthly bills, including those from his own firm. Ballard’s invoice from December was over $33,000.
Chris Freind can be reached at [email protected]