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.


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

  1. Mostly agreed, although I think the proper response is not to publicly subsidize DRPA, but to retire its debt and shift its financial model to one where DRPA itself is a creditor (perhaps sitting on a sizable endowment), not a debtor. At the very least, cut Wall Street ratings agencies entirely out of the decision-making loop.

    • Would becoming a creditor get them back into the “economic development” game, as they swore to exit after spending $500 million on things completely unrelated to transportation like soccer stadiums?

  2. Bish whet says:

    anyone have a copy of DRPAs PATCO capital budget? I’m sure that cost per rider on the bridges is less than the cost per rider on the PATCO. They can’t afford to subsidize something that is relatively inexpensive. Buses tho…

  3. Pat Gilligan says:

    I’d like to see the needed rate structure for train fares, if the subsidy didn’t exist, or was reduced. Hansen’s argument that we don’t deserve more seems like a bit of a shell game to me.

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