DRPA spends last of its economic development money

CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) - December 14, 2011

"I thought we changed our direction," said Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner, who also serves as one of the DRPA's commissioners. "As I sit here today, I'm not sure we have."

At issue, in a way, was honor: Should the agency give grants to outside groups to which it had made promises in 2009? Or should it make good on a 2010 promise to focus only on transportation? By a 13-2 vote, it chose the former.

The agency, which runs the PATCO Speedline commuter train and four Philadelphia-area bridges connecting Pennsylvania and New Jersey, has long been at the center of political tugs-of-war between Democrats and Republicans and officials from New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

In 1992, both states and Congress agreed to expand the agency's mission, giving it an economic development role in the Philadelphia region.

Over the years, it spent about $500 million collected through tolls and train fares on projects unrelated, or barely related, to the transportation mission. It helped pay for new baseball and football stadiums in Philadelphia, an aquarium in Camden, a soccer stadium in Chester, Pa., and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and the National Constitution Center, both in Philadelphia.

After years of criticism and racking up debt - the agency now owes around $1.3 billion - the agency voted last year to go out of the economic development business entirely.

But just under $30 million, all earmarked for New Jersey projects, was left in the economic development accounts. Board Vice Chairman Jeffrey Nash said it was given to projects that were supposed to get the money in 2009 but never did.

"I look at today as an opportunity to close the chapter on economic development spending," said John Matheussen, the DRPA's chief executive officer.

The commission moved $10 million of that to a capital fund that can be used to help with other major transportation and transit projects.

It allocated $6 million to Cooper University Hospital, where the chairman of the board is New Jersey Democratic powerbroker George E. Norcross III. The money is for a new building to be a hub for its cancer institute in Camden. Ground is expected to be broken on the building in April, and the total cost is expected to be $80 million to $100 million.

John Sheridan, president and CEO of the hospital, said the money means it can be a better facility. He said he expects it will be able to conduct important research because the hospital, along with Rowan University, is opening a new medical school in Camden next year. He also said the center will give patients in Camden better access to promising treatment trials.

He said there's something else the cancer center in Camden can do that the renowned hospitals in nearby Philadelphia cannot: "We have a goal of keeping patients in New Jersey and not allowing a couple billion a year of medical care to go out of state," Sheridan said.

The other projects are $2 million for student housing at Rutgers University's Camden campus; $1 million for planned housing and commercial buildings near PATCO's Ferry Avenue Station in Camden; $4.3 million to prepare the site of a former state prison in Camden for redevelopment; $4 million for improvements to Cooper River Park in Pennsauken, including work on bike paths and a rowing course that is used for many regattas; $400,000 to stabilize a pier in Gloucester City; and $2 million for the Food Bank of South Jersey.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has veto power over DRPA decisions, was scheduled to stop later Wednesday at the Pennsauken food bank. Officials there say need is increasing and donations are decreasing.

The causes didn't sway critics who showed up to Wednesday's board meeting to protest using toll funds for anything other than transportation.

"I'm a longtime financial supporter of the Food Bank of South Jersey," said Carol Rhodes, of Mantua Township. "But I give them my own money."

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