CAMDEN, N.J. — Lawmakers from New Jersey and Pennsylvania on Thursday announced plans to change the mission and rules of the Delaware River Port Authority, permanently banning the agency that runs bridges and a commuter train line in the Philadelphia area from engaging in economic development.
Bills set to be introduced next week in the legislatures of both states would also force the agency to comply with both states' ethics and public records law and ban political activity using DRPA time or resources, among other reforms.
Many of the changes already have been adopted by the bistate agency's board. But lawmakers and other advocates said at a news conference held under the agency's Ben Franklin Bridge that they need to be made into law.
"We want to make sure these changes are in statute so there's no going back to the old way," said John Rafferty, the Republican chairman of the Pennsylvania Senate's transportation committee.
Both states would have to adopt identical bills and Congress would have to approve it for it to take effect.
New Jersey state Sen. Joe Pennacchio, a Republican, said the changes being called for could also be a model for reforms at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which has a similar structure and has attracted intense scrutiny since the revelation that a former official there, along with a former aide to Gov. Chris Christie, ordered lane closures near the George Washington Bridge for political retribution against a local mayor. Christie and others have called for tighter controls on that authority.
The DRPA has been seen as a patronage operation used to dole out jobs and contracts, sometimes awarding equal contracts to companies from both states even though one did all or nearly all the work.
The last time Congress approved changes to the authority's compact was in 1992, when it gave it the power to do economic development work not directly related to its transportation mission.
From then until 2011, the authority spent about $500 million collected through bridge tolls and PATCO train fares to help fund a long list of projects, including new baseball and football stadiums in Philadelphia, an aquarium in Camden, a soccer stadium in Chester, Pa., and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and the National Constitution Center, both in Philadelphia, as well as lower-profile donations to groups such as the Food Bank of South Jersey.
Some of the projects were popular community amenities for which it may have been unpopular to fund with taxpayer money. Others simply fizzled, including a planned tram over the Delaware River that was never completed.
In 2010, under pressure from Christie and Democrat Ed Rendell, then governor of Pennsylvania, the DRPA announced it would cease giving money to non-transportation projects. But it still made one last allocation a year later of money it had previously promised.
Since then, anger has built about the spending amid problems with the transportation facilities, particularly at PATCO, where train station elevators and escalators have broken down and been out of service for repairs for extended periods. After years of growth, ridership on the line declined over the past year.
Jeff Nash, a Democrat who is vice chairman of the 16-member DRPA board, said in a telephone interview Thursday that he supports reforms, noting that he wrote many of those that have been adopted by the authority. He said "it's their prerogative" if elected officials want to put the changes into law.
But he wondered why Pennacchio, who represents a northern New Jersey district, is the only lawmaker in the state calling for the reforms so far.
"A senator from north Jersey should be concerned about the $13 cost it costs to get through the Lincoln Tunnel," said Nash, referring to a tunnel run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The cost of crossing any of the DRPA's four bridges is $5.
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