DRPA committee will consider changing fare structure for bridges

Posted: January 18, 2013

Should motorists pay less to cross the Delaware on the underused Betsy Ross Bridge than on the crowded Ben Franklin?

Should drivers on the spans once again get an E-ZPass discount?

Should PATCO passengers pay higher fares to cover more of the trains' costs?

Leaders of the Delaware River Port Authority will consider "more sophisticated" fare and toll structures for the agency's bridges and PATCO among other options as they plan DRPA's future, Board Chairman David Simon said.

Currently, tolls are the same ($5 for passenger cars, $45 for six-axle trucks) for all four DRPA bridges between Philadelphia and South Jersey. But the centrally located Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman Bridges carry 76 percent of the traffic, and the outlying Betsy Ross and Commodore Barry carry 11 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

Would lower tolls attract more drivers to the lightly traveled bridges?

That's something the DRPA strategic planning committee, established at the agency's board meeting Wednesday, should examine, Simon said. He added that current toll rates would remain for the "foreseeable future."

A flexible toll structure might attract more users and allow the Betsy Ross to better compete with lower-priced bridges such as the nearby Tacony-Palmyra, which is operated by the Burlington County Bridge Commission and has a $2 toll.

As for discounts to motorists who use electronic E-ZPass, Simon noted they are commonplace elsewhere, such as on the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Turnpikes.

DRPA ended its E-ZPass discount for all but senior citizens in 2011.

Traffic has been dropping at DRPA bridges since 2007, hurt by rising tolls, higher gasoline prices, and a depressed economy.

Last year, 47.3 million vehicles went through the toll plazas on the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Betsy Ross, and Commodore Barry Bridges, according to preliminary data, down from 48.2 million in 2011 and off the all-time high of 55.1 million in 2007.

Bridge traffic had risen each year since 2000 until tolls were increased from $3 for cars in September 2008 to $4. Tolls rose again July 1, 2011, to $5.

Conversely, more commuters are riding PATCO commuter trains despite rising fares. The trains carried 10.6 million passengers last year, up slightly from 10.5 million in 2011. The ridership level was the highest since 1999, PATCO general manager John Rink said.

The fare and toll structures should be tackled by the new committee after the panel reviews a just-released audit that made wide-ranging recommendations for improving DRPA management, Simon said.

The committee would be expected to respond to the audit by mid-March, he said Wednesday.

The panel will be chaired by DRPA chief financial officer John Hanson and board members Joanna Cruz and Tamarisk Jones. Also on the committee are board members Richard Sweeney and Walter D'Alessio and assistant PATCO general manager Cheryl Spicer.

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

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