A bill approved Dec. 16 by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives would require annual audits of the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission. Under HB1801, which passed the lower chamber by an overwhelming vote of 197-1, the commission must submit once every two years to an audit jointly conducted by the Auditor General of Pennsylvania and the State Auditor of New Jersey. The audits will include specifics of the expenditures and operations of the commission, according to the bill's text. The bill was sponsored by state Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Northampton, whose district near Allentown is about 18 miles from the river. He first proposed the bill in 1994. An identical bill was passed by the New Jersey General Assembly nearly 14 years ago, according to The Allentown Morning Call. However, it did not pass in Pennsylvania until the recent series of toll hikes and proposed hikes came up.
The Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission increased the tolls last November on seven bridges it maintains between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The tolls support maintenance on the total 20 bridges over the river operated by the commission. In some cases, tolls would have increased 300 percent.
When the higher tolls were first put into place last year, the bridge commission said the new rates were needed to help fund a 10-year, $526 million capital improvement plan.
Truckers, local political and business leaders and others objected to the higher tolls almost immediately. But the objections became stronger when local media sources revealed earlier this year that the increases would pay for things besides bridge work.
The Trentonian reported in early March that a portion of the toll hikes would pay 45 percent raises to the top three executives of the bridge commission. Frank G. McCartney, executive director of the commission, defended the pay hikes, telling the newspaper the raises were designed to “retain talent” to help with the commission's plan to rehabilitate its bridges.
In addition, The Allentown Morning Call reported earlier this year the commission intended to use about $250 million from the increases for unauthorized projects, including economic development such as projects on waterfront property and airport work.
Car and truck drivers in both states expressed anger over the toll hikes and other revelations, and various measures have sprouted up since that time calling for changes in the commission or how it operates.
HB1801 must still pass the Senate and be sign by the governor before it can go into effect.