DRPA set to decide - finally - how to spend leftover development money

Faced with competing demands for $29 million in unspent economic-development funds - including from food banks with a "pending crisis" - a Delaware River Port Authority panel may decide this month how to spend the money.

South Jersey food banks, struggling to meet a 70 percent increase in hungry residents, want $2 million of the money as was promised them two years ago.

The Food Bank of South Jersey plans to meet Wednesday with its network of food pantries and soup kitchens to discuss a $300,000 deficit and a "pending crisis" in funding.

Meanwhile, the AAA Mid-Atlantic auto club, which represents motorists in the region, wants the economic development money spent only on transportation projects.

In a letter Monday to the DRPA, AAA said the funds "should be used for projects that benefit the motorists who pay tolls every day."

The DRPA, which operates four toll bridges and the PATCO commuter rail line, has put off a decision on the leftover money for more than a year.

The DRPA finance committee is expected to recommend this month to the full DRPA board what to do with the money. Jeff Nash, the Camden County freeholder who chairs the committee, said he would advocate returning much of the money to cover transportation-related spending.

"The DRPA intends to focus on projects relating to its core mission, transportation across the Delaware River," Nash said Monday. "I suspect that while some projects may be funded, some of the projects may be canceled and used for transportation capital or to pay back past debt."

Under the terms set when it was borrowed, the money cannot be used for operating expenses of the DRPA but could be used to reduce debt or for capital projects, such as bridge repairs.

Most of the $29.2 million was designated for economic-development projects over the last two years but has not been contractually obligated for those projects.

Economic-development spending over the last 14 years has been a source of much controversy - and considerable expense - for the DRPA.

The agency has spent about $500 million for such things as concert halls, sports stadiums, museums, and monuments, contributing to its $1.4 billion debt and prompting criticism by Gov. Christie and others for its spending priorities. More than 40 percent of commuters' tolls on DRPA toll bridges now goes to pay principal and interest on those debts.

In a letter to the DRPA on Monday, AAA Mid-Atlantic public and government affairs manager Jenny Robinson urged the agency to "consider carefully how best to serve toll-paying motorists as you decide what to do. . . . To the extent possible, the unspent moneys should be used for projects that benefit the motorists who pay tolls every day on DRPA bridges or commuters on the PATCO High-Speed Line."

Included in the unspent and uncontracted $29 million is $2 million approved by the DRPA board in December 2009 for South Jersey food banks. Local food providers proposed dividing the $2 million among the Food Bank of South Jersey, Community FoodBank of New Jersey, and Philabundance, which together provide millions of meals each year through food kitchens, senior centers, food cupboards, and other agencies.

Other uncontracted projects, largely in New Jersey, include $9 million for an urban transit hub in Camden, $3 million for rebuilding Pyne Point Park in North Camden, and $4 million for improvements for rowing on the Cooper River.

The Food Bank of South Jersey said Monday that it faced the $300,000 shortfall this year, even as it has seen the number of area residents needing emergency food assistance jump from 100,000 people a year to 170,000.

"If we'd been able to get that money back in 2009, we wouldn't be dealing with this now," said Valerie Brown Traore, chief executive of the food bank. She said the $2 million would cover the food bank's deficit and "allow us to bring in tractor-trailer loads of food to stock our racks for at least a year."

She said she would meet Wednesday with the operators of 240 food pantries and soup kitchens at the food bank's Pennsauken headquarters to address what she called "a perfect storm of indifference and urgency."


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