Why Did the Commuter Cross the Bridge?

By Aaron Kase
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 16, 2010

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Why did the chicken cross the bridge?

To get to work and back. And it costs $4 every day for the poor chickens who live in New Jersey and work in Pennsylvania, or vice versa. Soon to be $5, even though the Delaware River Port Authority is sitting on a cool $55 million in discretionary funds.

Got a problem with that? Sign up to become a member of the DRPA’s new citizens advisory committee. Yes, that’s right. The DRPA, mostly famous for overcharging commuters crossing over the Delaware River and using the money to buy itself nice things, is now accepting applications for a new, 20-member panel.

But when the fox is in the hen-house, can an advisory committee of chickens really stop the slaughter? In theory, an advisory body could provide sorely needed oversight. In practice, the committee will only have the power to make nonbinding recommendations. What’s that worth to an agency used to ignoring criticism and doing whatever it wants anyway? Chicken shit.

The port authority begs to differ. “I think [the committee] makes a very big difference,” says DRPA CEO John Matheussen. “It brings in the public to see first-hand what goes on at DRPA and PATCO, gives them a voice at the table and gives the board a different perspective.”

“This is an opportunity to hear directly from the traveling public,” he says. “I think it’s a very positive thing.”

But who among us would make an effective giver of recommendations? Matheussen is vague about that. “Either a direct association with PATCO or with our bridges,” he says. “I think someone who has ambition to want to serve and be able to share their knowledge and opinions with our board; someone who is truly looking to share those attributes and make DRPA better.”

Also vague is how DRPA commissioners will decide who gets to be on the committee. “We’ll accept applications, screen them first to make certain we’ve gotten folks that have an ability to serve, and the board will make determination as to who will be chosen,” Matheussen says. Family members of DRPA employees and people doing business with the authority are banned from consideration, a surprising if positive caveat to those of us grown accustomed to the cozy nepotism and cronyism for which the authority is famous.

The DRPA was all over the news this summer. Like other quasi-independent public-agency brouhahas, it all started with a simple scandal (see: the downfall of Philadelphia Housing Authority head Carl Greene over missed mortgage payments). In this case, Public Safety Director Michael Joyce (salary: $180,000) was caught letting his daughter commute across the Delaware River to school using a free toll pass borrowed from a colleague. Hot on the scent of a good story, the media started asking questions and brought into light other unsavory aspects of the authority: Five-figure car allowances; questionable salaries (Matheussen makes $219,000, for example); $1.4 billion in debt; and about $500 million spent over 12 years on development projects that have nothing to do with bridges and trains, like Lincoln Financial Field and the Kimmel Center.

It’s unfortunate that a misspent hundred million here or there hardly makes us bat an eyelash anymore. What’s really so offensive about the agency is its existence as a free-range pasture for the politically well-connected to draw big salaries and graze on toll-payers’ dollars. Since fees to cross the bridges will have risen from $2 a decade ago to $5 by next summer (though a vote at tonight’s board meeting could delay the hike, maintaining the current $4 charge for another year), the public has good reason to be concerned.

Matheussen acknowledges that the idea for the advisory committee comes during increased DRPA scrutiny. “This is a resolution that came in the time frame when there were some other reforms that were being suggested by governors [of Pennsylvania and New Jersey],” he says. “This goes hand-in-hand with trying to move the authority ahead and get more involved with the general public.”

Note that the DRPA already has oversight. Govs. Ed Rendell and Chris Christie could actually stop the bleeding in the chicken coop. They appoint 14 of the 16 DRPA board members, with the exception of two spots reserved for the Pennsylvania treasurer and auditor general. The Pennsylvania governor can remove appointees, but has no veto power over the board’s decisions. The New Jersey governor has the opposite privileges. Together, they could stand up to stop abusive practices at the port authority, but for whatever reason have not. That could change if governor-elect Tom Corbett, who has already declared his intentions to follow Christie’s lead in matters of government reform, decides to focus more on the agency than his predecessor. Although Rendell has accepted blame for the agency’s problems after his six-year run as DRPA board chairman ended last year, he has taken no action to correct the situation. Meanwhile, Rendell’s old law firm, Ballard Spahr, has received more than $3 million in legal fees from the DRPA since he has been governor.

It’s possible the governors can make a difference, but Christie isn’t off to a great start. In the middle of his alleged reform frenzy, he has called for a number of changes including an end to free toll crossings for employees and a ban on workers taking jobs at DRPA vendors within two years of leaving the port authority. Though Christie has put a stop to free tolls for the time being, his veto of a weakened set of rules the board passed about post-employment policies, among other things, just means old rules institutionalizing pillage and plunder are still in place.

To the good government advocates Committee of Seventy, the only solution lies with the governors. “They have to appoint people [to the board] from both states on merit, and people who will agree that they’re gonna cut out the waste and the favoritism and the cronyism,” says CEO Zack Stalberg.

The Committee of Seventy is skeptical about the effectiveness of an advisory council. “It has the feeling of a nice little gesture toward the public,” Stalberg says. “It’s unlikely that a panel like this with no authority can bring about the fundamental change that DRPA needs. That is gong to require two governors from the two states getting together and deciding this is no longer a playpen for white-collar patronage.”

That said, for readers interested in applying, go for it. Applications are available on the DRPA and PATCO websites and at bridges and PATCO stations. The deadline to apply is Dec. 1. “I don’t want to discourage people from applying from the citizens’ panel,” Stalberg says. “I hope some serious activists apply, because a little screaming from the constituency is always a good thing.”

And maybe that’s the real role of an advisory committee. Chickens might not be able to fight back, but they can sure make a lot of noise.

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