Pennsylvania lawmakers advance bridge commission, authority reforms

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Multiple efforts moving through the Pennsylvania statehouse would reform and provide more legislative oversight of the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission and Delaware River Port Authority.

The DRJTBC maintains and operates seven toll bridges and 13 free bridges connecting New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The agency is made up of 10 commissioners with five from each state.

Currently, the New Jersey members are nominated by the governor and confirmed by the New Jersey Senate. The Pennsylvania members are appointed by the governor without legislative confirmation.

One bill halfway through the statehouse would give the Pennsylvania Senate the authority to confirm commissioners in the Keystone State.

Sen. Marc Scavello, R-Mount Pocono, said the legislation is a vital step in ensuring that the commission members are held accountable and are acting in the best interest of the state.

“Senate Bill 927 offers greater transparency and accountability among the members who make those decisions, especially when it relates to operation and oversight of an agency that brings in nearly $120 million annually,” Scavello said in prepared remarks.

He adds that the Senate already confirms members of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

The Senate voted unanimously to approve the bill. SB927 awaits further consideration in the House Transportation Committee.

The House Transportation Committee has approved another effort to reform the Delaware River Port Authority.

To change the DRPA’s federal charter, identical legislation must be enacted in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and be approved by the federal government.

The bill, SB286, is intended to overhaul how business is done at the bi-state agency that runs four bridges and a commuter rail in the Philadelphia area. The four bridges are the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Commodore Barry, and Betsy Ross bridges.

The $325-million-a-year agency is funded by tolls to cross the bridges.

Advocates say the goal is to ensure that the agency is run efficiently and cost-effectively without undue influence or conflicts of interest.

“The DRPA has come under increasing scrutiny over recent years for its unacceptable practices, including its patronage hiring, lack of transparency, lavish perks, excessive spending and debt, and burdensome toll increases,” Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, wrote in a recent memo to Senate lawmakers.

He has also said that the changes would help focus the agency by “maintaining its core function and not branching off to other unrelated areas that cause large toll increases.”

Rafferty’s bill, SB286, would prohibit the bi-state agency from engaging in economic development activity. Other changes include forcing the agency to comply with ethics and public records laws. In addition, a two-thirds majority of commissioners would need to sign off on any toll increase.

A similar pursuit is underway at the New Jersey statehouse.

Critics say the agency’s board has already adopted many of the changes.

Supporters say it’s important to make sure the changes are law in both states to avoid simply relying on the agency to police itself.

SB286 awaits consideration on the House floor. If approved there, it would move back to the Senate for approval of changes before advancing to the governor’s desk.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Pennsylvania, click here.

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