Lawmakers push for permanent rule tightening at DRPA

Pennsylvania and New Jersey legislators team up on the Camden Delaware River Waterfront for a news conference Thursday to propose sweeping changes to the federal charter of the Delaware River Port Authority, to make it more accountable and transparent. At the microphone is Pa. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale. Behind him, from left are, N.J. Sen. Joe Pennacchio; Pa. Rep. Mike Vereb; Pa. Sen. John Rafferty, chairman of the Pa. Senate Transportation Committee; and Philadelphia union leader and DRPA board member John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty Jr.
Pennsylvania and New Jersey legislators team up on the Camden Delaware River Waterfront for a news conference Thursday to propose sweeping changes to the federal charter of the Delaware River Port Authority, to make it more accountable and transparent. At the microphone is Pa. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale. Behind him, from left are, N.J. Sen. Joe Pennacchio; Pa. Rep. Mike Vereb; Pa. Sen. John Rafferty, chairman of the Pa. Senate Transportation Committee; and Philadelphia union leader and DRPA board member John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty Jr. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 26, 2014

In a rare bistate effort, Pennsylvania and New Jersey officials Thursday proposed an overhaul of the Delaware River Port Authority to ban economic-development spending and increase public accountability.

Republican legislators from both states, accompanied by Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat who sits on the DRPA board, and Philadelphia union leader John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, gathered on the Camden riverfront to outline their efforts to amend the federal charter that governs the agency.

"There have already been some changes made by the DRPA . . . but we want to make sure there's no going back to the old ways," said Pennsylvania State Sen. John Rafferty (R., Montgomery), who is sponsoring the legislation in that chamber. He said the changes needed to be placed in the charter to assure they could not be changed by future DRPA boards.

To take effect, the legislation would need approval from both houses of both state legislatures, signatures from both governors, approval by Congress, and a signature from the president.

Passage in Pennsylvania, where Republicans control both houses, seems more likely than in New Jersey, where Democrats control both houses.

New Jersey State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said the DRPA already had made most of the proposed changes. He said he saw no need for legislation to alter the agency's charter.

"What they're asking to be done has been done," Sweeney said. "The DRPA has returned to its original mission, and that's a good thing."

"I'm a little disappointed they didn't want to reach out to us to have a discussion about all the bistate authorities," Sweeney said, pointing to the controversies swirling around the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The DRPA legislation that will be introduced Monday in Harrisburg and Trenton would prohibit economic-development spending, require biennial audits, ban free bridge passes for employees, limit the salaries of executives, create a commuters' council, and compel public disclosure of political contributions by vendors.

The bills also would require state Senate confirmation of the governor's appointments to the DRPA board in Pennsylvania, as is already the case in New Jersey.

And it would prevent any DRPA employee from being paid more than either state's governor (currently, $187,256 a year in Pennsylvania and $175,000 in New Jersey).

The DRPA is a bistate authority that owns and operates the PATCO commuter rail line and the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Commodore Barry, and Betsy Ross toll bridges between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Its operating budget this year is $278 million.

The authority has been under investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia for the last year for hundreds of millions of dollars of politically connected economic-development spending.

The sponsors of the DRPA bills in Pennsylvania are Rafferty and State Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery), and in New Jersey, the legislation is sponsored by State Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R., Morris).

"The DRPA will no longer be allowed to police itself," Pennacchio said. "It will no longer be allowed to operate in the shadows and feed off more and more of your money."

DePasquale, who is on the DRPA board because of his position as auditor general, and Dougherty, who this month returned to the DRPA board as DePasquale's representative, said the agency needed to focus on bridge users and PATCO riders.

"It's not about rewarding law firms or XYZ company that happens to be politically connected," DePasquale said. "It's about operating the bridges efficiently, effectively, and affordably."

He said Dougherty would present the proposals to the DRPA board at its May meeting.

DRPA spokesman Tim Ireland said the agency had not seen the proposed legislation and could not comment on it.

The federal charter was last modified in 1992, when the legislatures and Congress gave the DRPA the authority to spend money on economic development in the eight-county "port district."

The proposed changes to the compact would take away that authority.

The DRPA last approved development spending in 2011, when it spent the final $20 million of nearly $500 million borrowed and spent on such things as stadiums, museums, and concert halls over 14 years.

Now that the money is gone, the DRPA board has said it will no longer spend money on anything not related to its core mission of transporting people across the Delaware River.


pnussbaum@phillynews.com

215-854-4587

@nussbaumpaul

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