The politically connected DRPA operates four Delaware River toll bridges and the PATCO commuter rail line between Philadelphia and South Jersey. It has an annual budget of about $300 million, with most of its money coming from tolls paid by drivers on the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Commodore Barry and Betsy Ross bridges.
Gov. Rendell and Gov. Christie last week asked for 16 changes at the DRPA, including the end of free bridge passes for executives and employees, an end to car allowances for managers, fewer hirings of family members, an end to closed-door meetings, and audits by state watchdogs.
Christie requested three additional reforms concerning rules on conflict of interest and charitable donations, and the disclosure of vendors' political contributions.
"It's not going to be any problem" to get DRPA board approval of those 19 changes, Estey said Monday. He said he would seek a stronger rule against the hiring of family members than requested by the governors.
The DRPA has been under fire for several weeks, after it was learned that the agency's chief public safety officer, Michael Joyce, borrowed a free E-ZPass transponder from another DRPA manager and gave it to his daughter to use to attend high school in Montgomery County.
Joyce resigned his $180,000-a-year post last week, after reimbursing the DRPA $600 and forfeiting three days' pay.
Robert Gross, the DRPA's deputy chief executive officer, has assumed Joyce's responsibilities temporarily.
John Dougherty, a Philadelphia labor leader and ward leader who is a Pennsylvania member of the bi-state DRPA board, has been demanding changes to increase accountability and transparency at the DRPA. He has been joined by Pennsylvania auditor general Jack Wagner and Pennsylvania treasurer Robert McCord, who also are members of the DRPA board.
New Jersey Assemblyman Domenick DiCicco (R., Gloucester) and Pennsylvania state Rep. Mike Vereb, (R., Montgomery) last week asked for a federal investigation of the agency.
Estey, a prominent Philadelphia lawyer who used to be Rendell's chief of staff, acknowledged Monday there "has been too much political influence" at the patronage-rich DRPA. He said he would support a ban on nepotism, rather than limiting family hires to one per employee, as requested by the governors.
Estey said a management audit that was due in 2008 will "be coming out any minute now."
Estey defended the salaries collected by top DRPA managers. Matheussen, the chief executive, is paid $219,474 a year and collects a $16,500 car allowance. Others, such as the chief public safety officer and general counsel, receive $180,081 and a $9,000 car allowance annually.
The car allowances are to be halted as part of the proposed reforms.
Estey said the salaries were based on recommendations from management consultants.
"If we reduce salaries, it won't make a significant difference in our expenses," Estey said. He said the salaries were necessary to attract and keep qualified executives.
"You need competence to run these authorities," Estey said.
Matheussen's contract expired last month, and Christie has said he will not permit him to be rehired for a third term until questions are answered about DRPA governance and procedures. Matheussen remains in his job as a holdover, based on an authorization letter signed by Estey and vice chairman Jeffrey L. Nash, a Camden County freeholder.
Estey also defended some of the economic-development projects funded by the DRPA with toll revenues.
In the past decade, the agency spent about $386 million for controversial projects such as Lincoln Financial Field, the Kimmel Center, the National Constitution Center, the Camden Riversharks' baseball stadium, a soccer stadium complex on the Chester waterfront and the National Museum of American Jewish History.
Without the DRPA's largesse, Estey said, important projects for the region would not have been funded.
"I deal in the real world," Estey said. "Where else are you going to find it [the money]?"
Estey said $3.5 million from the DRPA made possible the President's House memorial near Independence Hall, which commemorates the house where presidents George Washington and John Adams lived and where Washington kept at least nine slaves.
Estey called it "the most important project in the Philadelphia region in a generation."
Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or email@example.com