Monica Yant Kinney: $40 million is burning a hole in DRPA pocket

How does the Delaware River Port Authority do it?

It takes stamina to inspire the hatred of so many commuters year after year. But that's what you get when you give $10 million in bridge toll money to help fund a major league soccer stadium and luxury housing in Chester.

Chipping in to help revitalize a gritty city is a nice gesture. If only the timing weren't so rank.

In December, the DRPA vowed to get out of the economic development business. No more lavishing politicians' pet projects with cash. From then on, the authority would focus on keeping the trains running and the bridges from crumbling.

Two months later, the bistate brain trust has amnesia. They're handing out $10 million gift cards to private developers while claiming the DRPA is so broke that it must hike tolls and borrow $1 billion to get back to basics.

"The deck of the Walt Whitman had a 50-year life span," warns DRPA vice chairman Jeff Nash. "We're at 50 years, two months."

DRPA board members argue that linking the $10 million handout with that $1 billion bailout isn't fair.

Well, neither are $5 tolls.

Not that DRPA board members, chiefs and directors will pay. Free rides are a perk of the position.

Funny money

Drivers on both sides of the river are still raging about the last time the patronage mill cried poor.

Back in 2003, the DRPA slashed the measly 30-cent E-ZPass discount after blowing $300 million on all those development dreams.

What, you forgot that $800,000 of your quarters plopped into Neil Stein's pocket to help his Broad Street eatery, Avenue B? That's understandable, since later the Rittenhouse restaurateur filed for bankruptcy and went to prison.

And what about the $17 million that was spent on the nonexistent aerial tram over the Delaware River? Or the $3 million submarine simulator at the Adventure Aquarium in Camden that never came up for air?

Why, just last weekend at the Franklin Institute, I watched a $1 million IMAX movie promoting Philadelphia.

The film was produced by the cinema virtuosos at the DRPA. Oscar material, it was not.

"There were some good projects and some bad projects," Nash admits. "They spent a lot of money."

But not all of it, apparently.

At the DRPA, a dollar unspent is a dollar misspent.

Despite carrying a crippling $1.2 billion debt, the agency has $40 million left from bond sales that is collecting dust and interest.

"Federal tax laws say you have to spend the money," explains John Estey, Gov. Rendell's designee on the DRPA board. "You can't just leave it in the bank."

Well, I ask, couldn't DRPA chip away at what it owes before sticking drivers with another big bill?

Row, row, row your boat

Estey pauses, and tells me the leftover funds can be used however DRPA sees fit.

So far, that's meant giving $5 million to build the National Museum of American Jewish History near Independence Hall, and $10 million toward the soccer stadium/waterfront townhouse/office and retail renaissance coming to Chester.

"Ten million is not going to pay for re-decking the Walt Whitman Bridge," Estey rationalizes, "while $10 million for Chester might turn that community around."

And the rest of that $40 mil?

Think of Oprah's Big Give, only in reverse. The DRPA will dole it out like always, as the pols demand.

Meanwhile, the Ben Franklin Bridge still needs a paint job and PATCO runs 1970s-era cars. DRPA must undertake $1 billion in repairs, and the only way to pay for them is to start charging $5 to get to work or home from the Shore.

"We're not averse to raising tolls," Estey admits. "We'll go to the public. We'll talk about the needs."

This should be good. At the hearings held when DRPA did away with the 30-cent-per-trip E-ZPass discounts, drivers threatened to pay tolls in pennies or row across the river for free.

My prediction? This time, the spin will get emotional, with port authority brass claiming that hiking tolls to fix bridges may save lives.

Who wouldn't pay $2 more to make sure today's trip across state lines to buy wine isn't your last?

Talking with me, Nash doesn't disappoint. Unprompted, he brings up last year's tragic rush-hour bridge collapse over the Mississippi River.

"We have to make sure," he cautions, "that what happened in Minnesota doesn't happen here."


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at myant@phillynews.com or 215-854-4670. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/yantkinney.