Dredging standoff stalling projects

Rendell is boycotting DRPA meetings until N.J. agrees to the river work. It's economic vs. environmental issues.

About $54 million has been awarded for a major overhaul of the PATCO High-Speed Line's rail cars.

Another $1.5 million has been set aside to study whether PATCO should be extended in Center City and into Gloucester County.

20070424_inq_jdredge24-a
Gov. Rendell, as DRPA chairman , wants N.J. to act on dredging.

And tens of millions are waiting to be spent to repaint the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, perform engineering studies for redecking of the Walt Whitman Bridge, and begin operating a new PATCO smart card fare-collection system.

But none of the money is being spent.

And there are no signs that it will any time soon, as long as the standoff between Pennsylvania and New Jersey prevents the bi-state Delaware River Port Authority from holding board meetings and approving new contracts.

For nearly a year and a half, Pennsylvania Gov. Rendell, who is the DRPA chairman, has refused to call a board meeting. He says he will continue to boycott meetings until New Jersey agrees to deepen the Delaware River shipping channel.

The stalemate has already cost DRPA about $10 million that it could have saved by refinancing debt.

Things are about to turn worse. By the end of the year, the authority expects to burn through nearly all the capital money it can spend unless the board holds a meeting and approves additional spending.

And last week, financial rating agency Standard & Poor's cut DRPA's credit grade on two DRPA bond issues and assigned an overall negative outlook on the authority's debt, citing the DRPA's financial paralysis. The credit downgrade means the cost of DRPA borrowing goes up.

Signs of trouble can even be found on DRPA's Web page. Under headings for Upcoming Purchases for DRPA, Upcoming Purchases for PATCO, CEO Report and Letter from the CEO are three words:

"Nothing to report."

John J. Matheussen, DRPA chief executive officer and PATCO president, said he felt "some degree of confidence" that the dispute between the two states "will end soon so the board can get back to work."

Other officials close to negotiations between Pennsylvania and New Jersey say the two sides are inching closer, exploring whether to move management of the dredging project from the Delaware River Port Authority to a Pennsylvania entity, possibly the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority. That would make Pennsylvania fully responsible for funding the project and answering environmental and other concerns that New Jersey has found troubling.

Gov. Corzine's traffic accident has delayed the negotiations.

Another powerful player, Pennsylvania State Sen. Vincent Fumo, resigned from the DRPA board after being charged with defrauding a multimillion-dollar charity, using Senate staff for personal and political errands, and engaging in a cover-up after the FBI and IRS began to investigate him.

Chuck Ardo, a Rendell spokesman, said that the staffs of Rendell and Corzine "communicate on an irregular basis" and that "there has been no progress."

Corzine spokesman Anthony Coley simply said: "There's nothing new to report on the dredging issue."

Meanwhile, DRPA's four bridges and the PATCO rail line are operating normally.

"We have the good fortune of having a strong economy in the Delaware Valley, so we have seen an increased number of cars and trucks crossing the bridges. And toll collections and PATCO ridership have increased slightly," said Matheussen.

"We have really worked hard at trying to be efficient and doing things with less. We have been frugal with money, and have had to accomplish things by doing them differently, not necessarily spending money. We had about 1,100 employees in 2003 and now have 900."

The bi-state staredown, though, is about to take a toll. Matheussen said much-needed improvements and maintenance can't move ahead until decisions are made by the board.

Those concerns were echoed by Jeffrey L. Nash, vice chairman of the board and a Camden County freeholder. He said he was especially disappointed that DRPA couldn't refinance its $1.25 billion debt.

"Rendell would not sign off on a refinance agreement that would have saved $10 million," said Nash. "That was $10 million thrown down the toilet and nobody cares."

Because DRPA has been unable to approve a new capital budget, Nash said, the authority is still operating under a five-year plan approved in 1999.

"We've been forced to prioritize and take care of safety issues first and foremost," Nash said. "There's going to come a time when we need more capital dollars to do other projects. I want the board to get back together and move forward."

Though not officially meeting, some Pennsylvania and New Jersey commissioners continue to work on projects in their states.

Pennsylvania's dredging proponents want to deepen the shipping channel from 40 to 45 feet along a 103-mile stretch of the Delaware River. They say failure to do so will doom Philadelphia ports to obsolescence.

Opponents in New Jersey say they fear the material dredged from the river bottom may contain environmental hazards. They also question whether the dredging's cost, at least $500 million, is worth it for taxpayers.

"I and Gov. Corzine are adamantly against dredging," Nash said. "It will not do anything. In my view, it's an unnecessary project. Just because officials can spend millions of dollars doesn't mean they have to. We need to invest in the infrastructure of the ports."

U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D., Camden) labeled the proposed project a "boondoggle" and called for investments in roads, piers, warehouses and rail lines "that generate more business along the port."

"We would double our port business," said Andrews, adding that the current standoff "hurts the DRPA. We have to separate the dredging issue from whether the authority should meet.

"The boycott of the meeting is indefensible. You don't boycott meetings. You show up and defend the merits of your position. Let the authority's business move forward."

Pennsylvania State Rep. William F. Keller (D., Phila.), who represents South Philadelphia, praises Rendell's tough stand.

"We should commend him for what he's doing on dredging, not letting it fall off the table, and keeping it alive," Keller said. "I believe it is how we will reindustrialize the city of Philadelphia again. We have a unique opportunity to create new jobs by completing the dredging project. We are one signature away."

Keller said Rendell was not holding the DRPA board hostage. "Is it a hostage situation when you refuse to sign an agreement that will create thousands of jobs in the region?"


Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.