DRPA still has committed money for development

Posted: June 30, 2014

Two and a half years since approving its final round of controversial economic-development projects, the Delaware River Port Authority still has about $23 million left in its economic-development fund.

The money remains from projects approved years ago. Some projects continue to receive DRPA payments, and some have been dormant for years.

Over the last 16 years, the DRPA borrowed and spent nearly $500 million for such economic-development projects as stadiums, museums, and concert halls.

The operator of four toll bridges and the PATCO commuter rail line between Philadelphia and South Jersey, the DRPA gets most of its revenue from motorists' tolls. Toll payers have long complained about paying for projects unrelated to transportation.

In December 2011, the DRPA board approved $20 million for a final flurry of projects and proclaimed the end of the economic-development era. No more money would be spent on such projects, the board said.

But the money continues to trickle out.

About $22.7 million remains unspent, according to DRPA records. Of that, $17.5 million is for projects in New Jersey, and $5.2 million for projects in Pennsylvania.

"Most of the remaining projects are ongoing and obligated by contract," said Jeffrey L. Nash, the Camden County freeholder who is vice chairman of the DRPA board. "Remaining balances from completed projects will be returned to the general fund and can be used as part of our plan to reduce tolls for frequent commuters."

The largest balance is $4.3 million left over from the demolition of the Riverfront State Prison in Camden in 2009.

The DRPA approved $6 million for the prison demolition in 2008, but only $1.7 million was used. The prison is long gone, and the fenced-off grassy site in the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge is earmarked for redevelopment.

The unused $4.3 million will be given to the New Jersey Economic Development Authority for that redevelopment, said DRPA deputy CEO Michael Conallen.

An additional $4 million was set aside in 2011 for Cooper River rowing-course improvements and other waterfront work, but has not been spent.

In funds designated for Pennsylvania, $4 million remains from the $10 million the DRPA - at the behest of Gov. Ed Rendell - provided for infrastructure improvements to support the construction of a major league soccer stadium in Chester. The 18,500-seat stadium, PPL Park, has been open for four years as the home of the Philadelphia Union.

And Pennsylvania still has $1 million of $19.25 million that was to be paid to the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority for Delaware River dredging.

An additional $2.2 million is set aside to guarantee bank loans made to the Battleship New Jersey on the Camden riverfront, L3 Communications Corp. in Camden, and the Ship Recycling Research Institute in South Philadelphia.

If the loans are paid off, the $2.2 million will revert to the DRPA, said Conallen. None of the loans is in default, he said.

About $800,000 remains of $2 million given in December 2011, to the Food Bank of South Jersey. The food bank continues to receive reimbursements as it provides about 10 million pounds of food annually to residents of Camden, Burlington, Gloucester, and Salem Counties.

When the DRPA board approved the final $20 million of economic-development projects in 2011, two Pennsylvania board members dissented, urging that the money be used to reduce the agency's $1.6 billion debt or for transportation-related projects.

The two were state Auditor General Jack Wagner and Treasurer Rob McCord. Wagner's term as auditor general ended in January 2013.

McCord said Friday he recognized "the DRPA will have to honor its existing commitments. But future new projects should be more focused on bridge and operational improvements, and existing debt should be paid off to realize savings."


pnussbaum@phillynews.com

215-854-4587

@nussbaumpaul

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