DRPA cited for lax oversight, waste

The Delaware River Port Authority, which runs Philadelphia’s toll bridges and PATCO, improperly borrowed to fund a $440 million economic development program while ignoring work on its facilities, an audit found.

Oversight was haphazard, with development projects missing applications and approvals, while the program shifted from loans to outright grants, the audit released Thursday by New Jersey Comptroller Matthew Boxer showed.

Borrowed money went into a social fund that underwrote $10,000 for cocktail hours and carriage rides with lawmakers, while $15,000 paid for three galas, including an “Argentina Night of Tango,” the audit shows. The funds spent on groups linked to commissioners and agency executives “largely went to organizations that provided a personal benefit” to authority officials, according to the report.

“To state the obvious, commuters who pay to cross the Delaware River every day should not have their toll money used for DRPA officials to enjoy a carriage ride through Philadelphia or a ‘night of tango and wine,'” Boxer said in a statement distributed with the report.

The bistate agency, which operates river crossings linking New Jersey and Philadelphia, is funded mainly through tolls on the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Betsy Ross and Commodore Barry bridges, amounting to $248.6 million in 2010. The agency, which also runs the Patco commuter-rail line, raised bridge tolls by $1 to $5 in July to fund a $1 billion capital program.

In 2010, Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell sought tighter controls and the audit at the agency. Republican Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, after taking office in January 2011, replaced six board members and appointed himself the chairman.

Christie, 49, pushed to end toll breaks and car allowances at the agency. The audit showed that authority officials, and in some cases their friends and relatives, were able to avoid more than $1 million in tolls during 10 years after being put on a free-pass program.

‘Like personal ATM’

Boxer said his investigation “revealed a history and culture of weak policies, procedures and internal controls that have contributed to wasteful spending and mismanagement.”

“We found people who treated the DRPA like a personal ATM, from DRPA commissioners to private vendors to community organizations,” Boxer said. “People with connections at the DRPA were quick to put their hand out when dealing with the agency, and they generally were not disappointed when they did.”

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