The reason that DRPA and Wall Street are happy to keep you stuck in traffic on the Ben Franklin Bridge

Your misery is more profitable to the Delaware River Port Authority.

Your misery is more profitable to the Delaware River Port Authority.

Over the past few months, Delaware River Port Authority Vice Chairman (and Camden County Freeholder) Jeffrey Nash has made it known that he wants to bring back the discount that frequent drivers who use the agency’s bridges used to enjoy before it was discontinued several years ago due to poor financial management at the authority. In Nash’s opinion, the drivers who use those bridges are their “best customers” who “deserve this,” and are “hardworking men and women who cross the bridge every day.”

The only possible conclusion you can come to after reading Nash’s comments is that the tens of thousands of people who take the DRPA’s PATCO High Speed Line from South Jersey into Center City Philadelphia every day are considered not-so-hard-working second-class citizens, certainly not the stuff of “best customer” status, in the eyes of the port authority. But reading recent comments by DRPA CEO John Hanson, the picture becomes even clearer: it’s not just the DRPA that considers PATCO commuters as inferior customers, but United States financial system as well.

As the reboot of the discount for drivers nears, both the Philadelphia Inquirer and Courier Post have published articles detailing the effort of Larry Davis, the man behind the @PATCOWatchers Twitter feed widely applauded as encouraging DRPA and PATCO to become more responsive to consumers’ customer service issues, to get PATCO customers a frequent-use discount too. His petition (available here) currently has over 130 signatures. The message is simple:

“Include a discount for ALL commuters, not only a select group. PATCO Riders should also receive the same discount for frequent use that drivers will be getting. DRPA should treat all of their commuting customers equally.”

But quoted in the Courier Post article, DRPA CEO John Hanson explains why he feels his hands are tied:

“John Hanson, DRPA CEO, said it is not as easy to give PATCO riders a reduction for several reasons, the most significant involving the 50 percent DRPA subsidy that typically finances half of the annual PATCO operating cost.

He said bond rating agencies look at the viability of the PATCO subsidy.

‘We have been advised by our financial consultants that the subsidy should not exceed 50 percent, so as to not adversely impact our bond rating,’ he told the Courier-Post on Thursday.

Higher bond ratings usually mean lower interest rates when the DRPA borrows money for major capital improvements for its four river bridges and for PATCO.”

That might sound like simple financial jargon, and it is undoubtably good that DRPA gets to borrow money more cheaply to improve PATCO, but think about what he’s really saying: DRPA would really rather you not take PATCO, despite its superior convenience of getting into Philadelphia and price compared to parking a car either on the street or in a garage anywhere in Center City and the fact that taking the train for your daily commute generally improves your happiness and financial wellbeing.

The fact that these are the same ratings agencies whose financial wisdom helped crash the American economy 10 years ago notwithstanding, the fear of Wall Street on the part of the DRPA, in essence, forces them to operate like a business, when in reality their goal is not profit, but facilitating the public good. This is the problem that public transportation faces in the United States, and PATCO riders are the ones left to suffer its chilling affect on regional vitality. There’s a grand irony in the American financial system forcing DRPA to operate like a business when all of the roads that lead to and from its bridges are subsidized by every single citizen even if they don’t own a car.

In a world that makes a bit more sense, DRPA would be able to happily encourage people to ride PATCO instead of driving, saving its customers the frustration of city traffic and exorbitant parking fees. If this means DRPA has to be subsidized from outside, then so be it. Doing so would be a net gain for the vitality of our region. Philadelphia itself has been doing a much better job over the past decade in putting its land to better use; parking lot after parking lot is being removed in favor of new apartments, condominiums, and hotels. That city, which has for so long been handed over to the ruinous affects of the automobile, has finally realized that it’s better to build things that bring life and the economic activity it brings to its downtown core than trying (and failing) to entice suburbanites into the city with the illusion of plentiful cheap parking. And at this point in its history, Philadelphia has a bright future ahead of it, with the young and old alike moving in. If only DRPA could be a partner in Philadelphia’s and the region’s prosperity instead of a detriment to it, we would all be better off.

Built Environment, Demographics

Divided highways and New Jersey’s geography of cultureless nowheres

In a recent article for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Kevin Riordan writes about Daniel Nester, an author who recently wrote a memoir about growing up in Maple Shade, Burlington County. As Nester tells it, his book Shader is “mostly about growing up in a working-class Catholic family in 1970s and ’80s South Jersey – a landscape of malls, Wawas, and cemeteries” that’s immediately identifiable to anyone who grew up in the area.

But just because malls, Wawas, and cemeteries are universally recognizable parts of the South Jersey landscape, that doesn’t mean you could pick Maple Shade out of a lineup. If you grew up within a 20-mile radius of Philadelphia, it’s likely you’ve passed through Maple Shade even if you didn’t realize it. For much of the later half of the 20th century, Maple Shade’s story, like those of Pennsauken, Cherry Hill, or Marlton, was centered around roads like Routes 38, 70, or 73, those huge, fast divided highway that are today icons of suburban sprawl.

Route 38 through Maple Shade.

Route 73 through Maple Shade.

Routes 38 and 73 through Maple Shade are prime examples of soulless, placeless development representing a true geography of a cultureless nowhere.

Built during the time of suburbia’s relentless outward expansion, these roads offered a quick way to bypass the towns they run near. But over time, in an era of obsession with quick and easy accessibility by car, these highways became shopping centers in their own right. As towns like Maple Shade sought to cash in on the highways within their borders, they either let their downtowns decay or branded them as “historic” and relegated them to the nostalgic past (a problem that handicaps their viability to this day) . The car and the modern suburbs were king, and no one had a need for small, cramped storefronts anymore.

Or so they thought. What seemed like the new way of American life seems more and more like somewhat of a phase. We still live with these highways, though far from being the beacon of some American dream, they’re clogged with insufferable traffic during commuting hours and alternately lined with placeless big box stores and their own version of roadside decay. They’re nuisances at best — unwalkable, unpleasant to live near, and dangerous for cars, pedestrians, and people on bikes alike — and disastrous at worst — expensive to maintain, clogged with time– and health-robbing traffic, and physically decaying as their economic promise fades but still holding the attention of town halls as nearby downtowns await their revival.

Meanwhile, the focus of a lot of young people has moved back to the historic downtowns long forgotten. Towns like Collingswood, Haddonfield, Merchantville, or Bordentown that didn’t entirely let their downtowns implode are seeing a lot of interest from people who want to live in walkable communities. The towns that did are scrambling to create the arts districts, foster the coffee shops, or improve the public transit links to Philadelphia that people are once again looking for. In short, these towns are trying to figure out how to get back what they lost to highways and cars over the past sixty years: the community that comes from a town where neighbors meet each other on Main Street, the ease and convenience of life along a train line into the jobs of the city, and the economic advantage that comes from having a thriving, living downtown.

Stores in downtown Maple Shade. This could be the key to the town's success, if they embrace it.

Stores in downtown Maple Shade. This could be the key to the town’s success, if they embrace it.