Delaware River Port Authority free rides continue

Posted: September 08, 2010

Delaware River Port Authority employees who use the agency's toll bridges to commute to work still get free rides, despite recent pronouncements that the agency had ended the long-standing perk.

On Aug. 18, under fire for executives' free E-ZPass trips and lavish car allowances, the DRPA board approved a resolution to "eliminate all programs to all officers, employees and retirees of the authority [under which they] receive free bridge passage and free PATCO rides, effective immediately."

But a few days later, on Aug. 30, the director of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge issued a memo to agency employees telling them how to get free rides to and from work.

In response to inquiries by The Inquirer, DRPA chief executive John Matheussen said Tuesday that the agency would suspend the benefit soon, perhaps by Monday.

In her memo, the bridge director, Valerie P. Bradford, told employees to use the bridge's outside lane, which is not staffed by toll collectors and is designated for authorized use only.

When that lane is closed at night and on weekends, Bradford wrote, employees should "show their photo ID badge to the cash lane Toll Collector to obtain passage."

"The Toll Collector will note the ID, document the name on their exception sheet and grant the passage," she wrote.

Bradford reminded employees that the free ride "is strictly limited to while the employee is on duty or part of their commute from or to their DRPA/PATCO facility."

The agency's policy is that "when people need to travel for work, or if people are coming to work or going home, they don't have to pay," DRPA spokeswoman Danelle Hunter said Tuesday.

Hunter compared the practice to granting free admission to employees at an amusement park.

"At Disney World, I don't think they make employees pay to get in," she said.

Several hours later, though, Matheussen told The Inquirer "that was something I didn't have my eye on." He said he would move to end the free crossings.

He estimated that 20 to 25 percent of the DRPA's 900 employees commuted across the Delaware River to work.

"If we're going to treat employees like all our other customers, they'll have to pay the toll," Matheussen said.

He said they would not have to pay if they were crossing a bridge in the course of their work duties.

Matheussen said he would try to have a new written policy in place by the end of this week. The revised rules could be in effect by Monday, he said.

"Episodes like this make you worry about management's word games and lack of candor," board member and Pennsylvania State Treasurer Rob McCord said Tuesday.

"These types of antics are what create public distrust. Management should have known the intent of that board vote and executed that intent," McCord said.

"If anyone - any employee, commissioner, officer, retiree of the authority - is getting free passage, it is in violation of the DRPA's own resolution of Aug. 18," a spokesman for Gov. Christie said Tuesday,

Christie and Gov. Rendell requested an end to free rides in July as one of 19 changes to address ethical, accountability, and openness issues at the beleaguered authority.

The move came after the chief public-safety officer of the DRPA resigned after acknowledging he had borrowed an E-ZPass transponder from another agency executive to give his daughter, who lives in New Jersey, free trips to school in Pennsylvania.

At the time, most employees received 100 toll-free bridge trips or PATCO rides per year. Those hired after Sept. 14, 2008 - the date of the most recent toll increase - were ineligible for the perk.

On July 22, top DRPA officials said free trips, as well as car allowances for executives, would be halted. The perks, DRPA Vice Chairman Jeffrey Nash said at the time, were "offensive to many commuters."

In its unanimous vote on Aug. 18, the DRPA board called for the free rides to end immediately.

Two DRPA employee unions - the Fraternal Order of Police and the Operating Engineers - have formally objected to elimination of the benefit because it was in their negotiated contracts.

The free-rides issue is one of many that have engulfed the politically connected bistate agency in the last two months, prompting Christie and Rendell to demand broad changes to make the DRPA more open and less susceptible to political influence.

Christie, upset with the pace of change and the half-measures he said were being taken, went to DRPA headquarters in Camden on Friday. He vetoed several of the board's August efforts at reform, saying they did not go far enough to end political back-scratching and instill public confidence in the authority.

The DRPA operates the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Commodore Barry, and Betsy Ross toll bridges and the PATCO commuter rail line between Philadelphia and South Jersey.

The authority is governed by a 16-member board, with eight members from each state. It has an annual budget of about $300 million, of which $243 million is provided by bridge tolls and $24 million by PATCO fares.


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

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