DRPA gets more hits over hikes Can't afford them, commuters say.

Posted: July 24, 2008

Motorists upset with the prospect of higher bridge tolls yesterday accused Delaware River Port Authority officials of catering to developers and political leaders at the expense of ordinary commuters.

In the last of two hearings on proposed toll increases and PATCO fare increases, drivers chided the debt-burdened authority for spending $375 million on stadiums, museums and symphony halls. They said toll increases would hurt commuters already struggling with higher costs for gasoline, food and housing.

Tom Gangemi of the Oxford Circle section of Philadelphia said he could not afford to go to places that his tolls helped build, such as the Kimmel Center, Lincoln Financial Field and the National Constitution Center.

"I went once to the Kimmel Center, and you know how much they charge for a glass of wine? Twelve dollars," Gangemi said. "I used to have season tickets to the Eagles. Now I can't afford to go the games." He chastised the authority for leaving "us poor suckers sitting on the curb, wishing we could get in," while wealthy patrons enjoy toll-subsidized facilities.

"You want this raise, put it on the ballot and let us vote for it," said Ann Marie Stolfo of Bellmawr.

"Any time you want a raise, it's always 'the safety of the bridges,' and that's bullc-," Stolfo said to applause and cheers from the crowd of about 100 people in the cavernous Philadelphia Cruise Terminal at the Navy Yard in South Philadelphia.

Delaware River bridge tolls for cars are scheduled to rise to $4 on Sept. 14 from the current $3, and High-Speed Line fares will go up 10 percent at the same time, if the port authority board approves the proposed hikes.

Additional fare increases are set for 2010, with bridge tolls to go to $5 and fares to rise another 10 percent. Beginning in January 2013, increases tied to inflation would be imposed every two years.

Also, the cost for a senior-discount round trip would double to $2, and the discount would be eliminated between 6 and 9 a.m. and 4 and 7 p.m. Instead of using special $1 tickets at the toll booths, seniors would be required to get an E-ZPass account and would be limited to one discount per day.

Senior citizens were especially vocal at yesterday's hearing, calling for the DRPA to do away with the planned changes.

Commuters also repeatedly urged the authority to save $35 million earmarked for economic development projects to reduce debt or trim toll hikes.

"You guys have done a bad job," Bob Esposito of Cherry Hill told DRPA officials, as rain drummed on the roof of the terminal. "You guys are not making any sacrifices at all for the errors you made. . . . The power brokers in Pennsylvania and South Jersey control what you do, and what you did was all for construction."

DRPA chief executive John Matheussen repeated his assurances that money raised by the increased tolls would not be used for economic development. He said the higher tolls are necessary to pay for about $1 billion in repairs and improvements to the DRPA's four bridges and fleet of 120 rail cars over the next five years.

But most of the speakers at last night's session were unmoved.

John Clark of Franklinville said the DRPA's promises not to fund future economic development rang hollow:

"You're out of money. That's like me being stranded on a desert island and bragging about how well I've been able to follow my diet."

Cathy Rossi, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the DRPA "has burned many bridges not easily repaired - this agency is mired in debt and public distrust." She said the auto club supported a one-time toll hike, with motorists getting "immediate returns on their investment."

Walter Kontra, operations manager for Indian Valley Bulk Carriers of Tylersport, Pa., said his trucking company could ill afford the proposed hikes in commercial tolls and the planned elimination of the commercial discount.

He said the changes would mean a $65,000 annual increase in toll charges, to $200,000, for his firm's 65 trucks.

Tony DeSantis, representing the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, drew boos and catcalls when he voiced support for most of the toll increases and elimination of the discounts.

"Nobody wants to pay more, but a decrease in PATCO service or deferring maintenance on facilities would be worse for the region and its economy," he said.

The last toll increase on the bridges was in 2000, when a round trip went from $2 to $3. The original round-trip cost on the Ben Franklin Bridge, which opened in 1926, was 50 cents. Through inflation, that would be about $6.12 today.

The last PATCO fare increase was in 2001, when the maximum round-trip fare went to $4.90 from $4.20. The maximum when the 14-mile line opened in 1969 was $1.20, equivalent to $7.08 today.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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