DRPA chooses gimmicks over fiscal responsibility and regional cooperation

Earlier this morning, the Courier Post reported that the Delaware River Port Authority, the agency that runs the bridges between South Jersey and Philadelphia and the PATCO High Speed Line, is bringing back a frequent-user discount that was axed 4 years ago.

The newspaper reports that DRPA is “expected to approve Wednesday morning’s finance committee recommendation to restore the $1 per round-trip discount that was eliminated in 2011” that would apply to the “30,000 commuters using DRPA bridges at least 18 days a month.”

It follows months-long public rumination on the return of the discount on the part of Jeffrey Nash, DRPA’s Vice Chairman (who is also a Democratic Camden County freeholder up for reelection in November). As nice as it is to see prices going down instead of up, this is absolutely the wrong policy decision at the wrong time. And the results of encouraging more driving could have disastrous effects on our neighbor to the west.

For decades, Center City Philadelphia was held prisoner by an obsession with cars. It leveled buildings to build parking lots and garages and it destroyed neighborhoods and access to the Delaware River waterfront to build interstates. Only in the past 15 years have city officials and regional planners realized that in order for the city to come back, it needs to focus on people, not cars. And it’s working. The city’s population is rising, it’s attracting young people at a greater clip than its peers, and construction cranes dot the skyline.

As a result, its citizens, both old and new, are getting around more and more without cars. The city has a high number of bike riders, recently bolstered by the launch of a bike share program. People are arriving more into the city by rail, especially on SEPTA’s regional rail lines. Philadelphia no longer has to obsess over accommodating cars in order to attract people.

Unfortunately, this message hasn’t reached the offices just across the river at the DRPA’s office on the Camden waterfront. The agency is still stuck in a dated mentality that favors cars above all else. Think about what it would mean if their resurrected discount was a runaway success and half of those who take PATCO today drove into the city instead. It would mean over 17,000 more cars on the road, resulting in more time wasted sitting in traffic, less time being productive at work in the morning, and less time at home with families and friends in the evening. It would mean more traffic in the city’s narrow streets and a harder time finding parking. It would mean more money lost to gas and rising parking costs, as land in the city gets more valuable as the city’s fortunes grow greater. And it would mean more pollution for a region that already suffers from the environmental damage done by factories and oil refineries.

In a world where more people drive into Philadelphia, there are no winners. The gains seen by saving a few dollars by driving across the DRPA bridges everyday would very quickly evaporate when factoring in the mountain of other costs more driving entails. Successful regions have spent the past 15 years getting people out of their cars and on their feet, on bikes, and on mass transit and seen increased productivity, economic, and public health outcomes as a result. I only wish that DRPA officials would take those cities’ leads and understood the regional ramifications of their decisions.