DRPA to borrow $500 million for ongoing repairs to bridges and PATCO

Posted: February 22, 2013

The Delaware River Port Authority will borrow $500 million to pay for ongoing repairs to its toll bridges and PATCO commuter rail line.

The DRPA board approved the borrowing Wednesday, but said bridge tolls and train fares would not be raised to pay for the increased debt.

The last toll increase, which took effect July 1, 2011, was designed to pay for this borrowing, said chief financial officer John Hanson.

The DRPA plans to spend $119 million this year and an additional $627 million through 2017 to upgrade its four toll bridges (the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Betsy Ross, and Commodore Barry) and refurbish PATCO rail cars.

The agency used all the money in its project fund last August and has borrowed about $40 million from its general fund to pay for ongoing construction. The new borrowing will reimburse the general fund and replenish the project fund, Hanson said.

Hanson said the DRPA would borrow the money soon to take advantage of historically low interest rates.

The new borrowing will increase the DRPA's debt to about $1.6 billion. Payment on debt, and related costs, makes up about half of the DRPA's annual expenses.

Hanson said the DRPA would try to reduce that burden by creating a fund to allow the agency to pay more of its major construction costs directly rather than by borrowing more money.

"We will build a pay-as-you-go fund to diminish the authority's reliance on borrowing," he said.

Last year, the DRPA cut debt costs by refinancing some bonds and paying off others early, and it expects debt-service costs to be about $10 million less this year than last.

The board on Wednesday also heard from representatives of toll collectors, maintenance workers, police, and other employees unhappy about stalled contract negotiations.

The workers said Gov. Christie, who has veto power over DRPA contracts, has insisted on no raises and reduced benefits.

Louis Agre, a lawyer for 200 toll collectors, dispatchers, maintenance workers, and other employees represented by Operating Engineers Local 542, said no progress had been made to replace a contract that expired Dec. 31.

"There are no negotiations, just take, take, take," Agre told the board.

Charles Joyce, an attorney for 131 police officers who last week won a federal lawsuit compelling the DRPA to submit to binding arbitration in their long-running contract dispute, urged the DRPA board not to appeal the ruling but to work toward a new contract.

"Every day you delay, every dollar you spend, is an exercise in futility and a disservice to the public," Joyce said.

The police contract expired at the end of 2009.

DRPA Board Chairman David Simon was conciliatory to both employee groups, saying a new board labor committee was trying to settle the contract issues.

No decision has been made about appealing the court order on arbitration, he said.


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

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