DRPA hopes to limit hike in budget Bridge traffic is down, debt payments are up, and increases in tolls and PATCO fares loom in 2010.

Posted: November 27, 2009

With bridge tolls scheduled to rise in 2010, the Delaware River Port Authority will have more money to spend in the annual budget it is preparing for approval next month.

But bridge traffic is down, debt payments are up, and times are tough, so any increase in the bistate authority's operating budget is likely to be well below the nearly 12 percent boost of last time.

"We intend to keep increases, if any, to a minimum," DRPA chief executive John Matheussen said.

Bridge tolls for autos are scheduled to rise to $5, from the current $4, in September. At the same time, fares for PATCO commuter rail service are to increase by 10 percent.

A crucial issue in the next DRPA budget will be wage increases for most of the agency's 960 employees. Last year, the board approved 3 percent raises for most employees, but Gov. Corzine early this year asked state agencies not to increase workers' pay because of the weak economy and the debt-ridden state finances.

The DRPA's capital budget, which pays for bridge maintenance, upkeep of PATCO railcars, and other construction, is expected to almost double as the agency proceeds with a $1 billion five-year plan to fix its four bridges and rebuild the PATCO rail fleet.

On Dec. 9, the DRPA board will approve the agency's operating and capital budgets for 2010.

Neither budget proposal has been made public as the DRPA continues to tweak the numbers, but the public and media may get a sneak preview of the budgets a day or two before the board vote, Matheussen said.

The current budget for operations and debt service is $255.6 million, up 11.7 percent from 2008. The operating budget also calls for a $25.9 million payment to the general fund, so the total is $281.5 million.

The current capital budget is $104 million. The agency's five-year plan calls for a $205.5 million capital budget next year.

A 4 percent increase in the operating budget would boost the budget for operations and debt service to $265.8 million. If payments to the general fund also increase 4 percent, that would bring total spending to about $293 million.

This year, bridge tolls are expected to bring in about $250 million. Next year, with the September increase, the DRPA can expect to collect about $268 million in tolls. PATCO fares will bring in about $25 million in 2010.

To pay for its ambitious - and expensive - capital program, the DRPA is preparing to borrow up to $510 million. That would increase the DRPA's total debt to about $1.65 billion.

The authority has a higher debt burden, compared with its income, than any toll-collecting agency in the region. The biggest expense in its 2009 operating budget - $117 million, or 41 percent - is payments on its debt.

That will rise in 2010, as the debt is increased by new borrowing.

The new borrowed money will go to pay for the capital expenses, which in 2010 are expected to include:

$83 million for upgrades to PATCO cars and equipment;

$93 million for maintenance and repairs on the Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, Commodore Barry and Betsy Ross Bridges;

$12 million to improve security;

and $17 million for upgraded technology.

The agency's large debt is partly a legacy of its spending on controversial economic-development projects in Philadelphia and Camden.

In the last decade, the agency has spent about $386 million on sports arenas, museums, concert halls, and other projects, much to commuters' dismay.

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

In February, the DRPA board voted to spend $11 million of that money for six projects, including $3.5 million for a President's House memorial near Independence Hall.

Even as its spending grows, the DRPA faces lower traffic counts on its bridges. Traffic is down about 6 percent this year, with the largest decrease - 17 percent - reported on the Betsy Ross, the least traveled of the spans.

That decrease means that even though tolls were increased by 33 percent last year, toll revenue has risen only about 27 percent.

About 53.4 million vehicles crossed the bridges in 2008. A 6 percent drop would mean about 3.2 million fewer vehicles in 2009.

The Dec. 9 board meeting on the DRPA budgets, scheduled for 10 a.m., will be open to the public at the agency's headquarters at One Port Center in Camden, adjacent to the Adventure Aquarium.

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

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