DRPA workers can keep some free bridge crossings

September 15, 2010 3:20:26 PM PDT
The board of the Delaware River Port Authority on Wednesday restored to employees the free bridge passage and train rides that it had rolled back - and decided to do more research before committing to other reforms that Gov. Chris Christie says should be adopted quickly.

The bistate agency, which for years has quietly tried to fix its image as a hotbed for patronage jobs and unnecessary spending, found itself embroiled in scandal and calls for quick fixes since July.

It turns out that some changes aren't so simple for the agency, which runs four Philadelphia-area toll bridges and the PATCO commuter train line.

That's why board members said they were delaying decisions until October on how best to restrict employees from moving easily between jobs at the agency and at companies that does business with it. The board also delayed action on a measure that would bar the agency from doing business with people and businesses that make political donations in either Pennsylvania or New Jersey.

In both cases, commissioners said they needed more time to sort out how to do it right.

Last month, the board passed a policy that prevented DRPA workers from resigning and taking jobs working for the agency-related business for its contractors.

Christie vetoed it, saying it wasn't tough enough. He wanted a two-year ban on working for vendors - on DRPA contracts, or otherwise.

But commissioners balked at that Wednesday after hearing from some agency managers who said it could be destructive to the work force, especially engineers. The agency does business with most of the nation's most prominent bridge engineering firms.

"If we adopt this resolution, we will see a lot of engineers leave by the end of the year and it will be difficult to attract talent," said John Estey, the chairman of the board.

In response to Christie's prodding, the board also considered a measure to ban doing business with contractors who donate money to candidates or political action committees.

But that was withdrawn so DRPA lawyers could research whether the prohibition would violate the laws of either state or run contrary to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that struck down bans on corporate campaign giving.

The meeting featured raised voices and employees arguing with commissioners.

At one point, board member Frank DiCicco, a Philadelphia city councilman, declared, "It's all theater!"

The main debate was over free bridge and train passage for employees.

It's a longtime benefit of the job, but it created outrage when it was publicly reported this summer.

In August, the board took away the 100 free rides that most employees receive.

Last week, CEO John Matheussen eliminated a related perk - letting employees cross the bridge for free en route to work.

Rich Franzini, a business representative of the International Union of Operating Engineers, told the board his members have a pay freeze this year. "Now, the DRPA is reaching into our pockets and taking out a thousand dollars a year," he said.

Employees view being told to pay their tolls like a hot dog vendor having to buy a ticket to get to a baseball game where he's working.

Board vice chairman Jeff Nash, also a Camden County freeholder, rejected that interpretation. "The average citizen on the street who is paying taxes - or in this case tolls," he said, "will not stand for it."

Ultimately, the board decided to keep the 100 free rides for union members because it's provided in their contracts. And the other workers can keep commuting for free.

The free rides will be available only if Christie doesn't veto it. His office didn't immediately return a call on the topic.


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