Corbett makes debut as DRPA board chairman

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Gov. Corbett holds a news conference after chairing his first meeting of the Delaware River Port Authority. Corbett was voted chair at the meeting. He formally replaced six of the eight Pennsylvanians on the 16-member bistate agency.

Gov. Corbett spent two hours and 40 minutes as a commuter Wednesday morning, enduring rush-hour traffic on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Schuylkill Expressway. So he was primed to tout the virtues of mass transit and E-ZPass lanes when he made his debut as chairman of the Delaware River Port Authority.

As head of the agency that operates four toll bridges and the PATCO commuter rail line between South Jersey and Philadelphia, Corbett said he would make commuters his top priority and focus on cutting the DRPA's heavy debt burden.

"The business of the DRPA, as far as I'm concerned . . . is the commute and the safe transportation of people back and forth across the Delaware River," he told reporters after overseeing his first meeting of a reconstituted DRPA board.

Corbett formally replaced six of the eight Pennsylvanians on the 16-member bistate DRPA board on Wednesday.

He said he would work closely with Gov. Christie and would be an active chairman. He plans to make it to most meetings, Corbett said, unlike former Gov. Ed Rendell, who also appointed himself to the board but rarely attended its gatherings.

"I want to take a look at what's going on here," Corbett said. "It certainly is on the minds of the people of southeast Pennsylvania."

The DRPA has been under fire for months for its spending and management practices.

Corbett said it was too early to say whether he would replace chief executive John Matheussen. And he would not indicate whether he supported the DRPA's proposed light-rail extensions along the Philadelphia Delaware River waterfront and between Camden and Gloucester County.

Corbett and Christie have promised to end the long-standing practice of "economic development" spending, which has contributed to the DRPA's $1.4 billion debt. About 47 percent of tolls now go to making payments on that debt.

Much of the debt was accumulated during the last 12 years, as the DRPA spent about $500 million on economic-development projects such as sports stadiums, museums, and concert halls.

"When the debt is as high as it is, that directly affects the ridership" in the form of higher tolls and fares, Corbett said. "We need to get that under control."

Corbett and his five appointees took their seats on the DRPA board, replacing all of Rendell's appointees. Two Pennsylvania commissioners remained on the board by virtue of their elected offices: state Treasurer Rob McCord and state Auditor General Jack Wagner.

By unanimous vote, the Pennsylvania and New Jersey commissioners elected Corbett chairman. He replaces Philadelphia lawyer John Estey, Rendell's former chief of staff. Estey served as chairman in Rendell's absence until Rendell stepped down from the board, at which time he became chairman in his own right.

Corbett declined to address Matheussen's future. The chief executive's contract expired in July, and he has retained his $219,474-a-year post based on a letter of authorization signed by Estey and DRPA Vice Chairman Jeffrey Nash, a Camden County freeholder.

Corbett said he was not sure if he, as the new chairman, would need to authorize Matheussen's retention.

"I need a little bit of time" on that, he said.

The chief executive post traditionally has been filled with a nominee from New Jersey's governor.

Christie, who has pushed for cost cuts and management changes at many New Jersey authorities, said last year that he would not permit Matheussen to be given a contract for a third term until problems at the DRPA were addressed.

The board conducted little substantive business Wednesday, deferring most of its agenda to its next meeting, set for March 16.

The board did vote to spend $85,964 for a one-year extension of a controversial insurance policy on two buildings on the Camden waterfront. An existing 10-year policy was to expire this month.

The insurance protects the buildings' owner and developer, Dranoff Properties Inc., from liability related to environmental clean-up to make the former RCA industrial buildings suitable for residential use. One of the buildings, the landmark "Nipper Building," has been converted into the Victor Loft Apartments, while the second remains unrenovated.

After questions were raised by board members this year about paying to insure buildings the DRPA does not own, the agency began to work with the New Jersey Economic Development Authority "to find a way of unwinding this legal web," Nash said.

He said he hoped the DRPA would be able to shed the insurance responsibility by the end of the policy extension.


Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.