Pennsylvania lawmakers approve port authority reforms

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 10/21/2016

Long-sought reforms could soon be reality for the Delaware River Port Authority.

The Pennsylvania Senate voted 37-13 to sign off on changes made to a bill 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 linking Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The legislative action comes on the heels of a federal judge’s decision to overturn a $17.8 million contract to paint the Commodore Barry Bridge.

U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman late last month accused the DRPA of unfairly awarding bids in an “undocumented process shrouded in mystery and obscured from public scrutiny.”

The judge’s decision also appointed the contractor that provided the lowest of seven bids submitted to paint the bridge. The DRPA had selected a company that placed a bid that was $10,200 higher than the lowest bid.

Senate passage of the bill clears the way for SB286 to move to the governor’s desk. House lawmakers previously approved it on a 117-73 vote.

The final version of the bill would prohibit the bi-state agency from engaging in economic development activity. Other changes include forcing the agency to provide 30 days public notice prior to any vote concerning a contract and adhering to open records laws. In addition, acceptance of any gifts that could affect the conduct of DRPA business would be prohibited.

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

Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, told Senate lawmakers 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.”

He added 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.”

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.

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

A similar pursuit is underway at the New Jersey statehouse.

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

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