How do you solve a problem like DRPA? Kill it.

(OK, the scansion needs a lot of work.)

The idea of a transportation authority is very simple. By isolating an important public function from direct interference (and oversight) from elected officials, you can create an atmosphere of continuity and stability that allows the authority to issue bonds without undue distress (in the form of higher interest rates) on the part of the bond vigilantes on Wall Street.

That, at least, is the theory. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen repeatedly in the unfolding drama of Bridgegate, just because there’s not a direct chain of command that runs to elected officials doesn’t mean there’s not ways for them to wield power over these nominally independent entities. Not only does Governor Christie stand accused of placing personally loyal associates in the hierarchy of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) to do his bidding, but also of conducting multibillion dollar raids on the Port Authority’s treasury for New Jersey state transportation projects outside its purview. So much for independence from political interference, not to mention the supposed checks and balances of PANYNJ being a bistate agency. Even when the PANYNJ is functioning as designed, it tends towards spending money like a drunken sailor, without the slightest hint of cost control. While real transportation needs go unaddressed, the Port Authority sees fit to build a $225 million hallway and a $1.5 billion (budgeted) redundant PATH extension to Newark Airport Raillink Station. Observers of the Port Authority are in nearly universal dismay at the prospect of it being reformed; Stephen J. Smith and Matt Yglesias have both written eloquent and well-reasoned arguments for breaking it up into component parts. And last week, the New Jersey Assembly’s transit consolidation bill clearly called out the Port Authority’s PATH rapid transit system as a target for merger.

So it seems clear to me, if we can call for the rightful destruction of the larger and, frankly, slightly more useful PANYNJ, then our own local patronage-and-graft mill, the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA), needs to die. And it needs to die now.

Now, the primary assets the DRPA has are actually fairly sensible things for a (hypothetical functional) bistate authority to own: four toll bridges over the Delaware River, and the PATCO rapid-transit system from Philadelphia to Lindenwold. (It also controls the actual port facilities, which I will leave to the side for now.) Both states clearly have an interest in these assets; Pennsylvania needs access to its New Jersey hinterland for commercial markets, suburban employment centers, and traditional-commute workforce, while South Jersey needs access to the entire rest of the country that isn’t North Jersey and New York, as well as jobs in Philadelphia. So far, so normal. So how does one guarantee the interests of both sides? If Pennsylvania has control, it’s incentivized to exploit New Jersey’s greater reliance on PATCO and the bridges for its own gain, and keep fares and tolls high and service low. If New Jersey has control, it’s incentivized to keep tolls and fares artificially low, unless a statewide agency decides to funnel the money north to the more populous and politically powerful North Jersey. Both sides are incentivized to offload traffic and other negative results of bad planning decisions on the other.

As major infrastructure facilities that are self-funding, the problem with the bridges is that they produce a positive cash flow in most years, assuming fairly set toll rates. This money then just sits until it is needed for major rehabilitation work. However, money in a bank account is a juicy and tempting target for unscrupulous politicians to misdirect for more obviously vote-getting purposes. (The actual mechanisms here involve debt issuance and bonds, but other than temporality and setting where the zero point is, it’s fundamentally the same, and I’m eliding the difference for clarity.)

Well, we can go on and on about how we sadly expect politicians on both sides to be thieving, lying assholes to each other, and the public, and how terribly disappointing this state of affairs is, etc. etc. But the truth is that humans have been dishonest thieving assholes for millennia now, and that we’ve generally solved this problem on an institutional level with law, and specifically with contract law. Clever negotiations and clever lawyers can come up with ways for even the bitterest of enemies to live in peace with each other. Pennsylvania and New Jersey haven’t even fought a shooting war against each other ever, much less lately. If all we need is a balance of distrust, then I think we can manage that.

What follows is a possible outline of how to fairly divide the assets of the DRPA so that its culture of graft can never rise from the dead again.

The primary idea is to have SEPTA absorb the day to day operations of PATCO and the bridges. In exchange, they would receive toll revenue equal to the net cost of operating the PATCO line, as well as a share of the toll surplus. SEPTA, in exchange for receiving this new income stream, would be obligated to provide a barrierless transfer from the repatriated Bridge Line to the El at 8th and Market, as well as to the Subway at Broad and Locust. And to protect New Jerseyans from an unresponsive Pennsylvania state agency screwing them with service cuts, tolls at the bridges would be linked to the level of Bridge Line service, updated hourly, which would provide SEPTA a direct financial incentive to maximize service. For protection from fare increases, the present fares (other than the within-Philadelphia fare) would be permanently fixed, apart from optional adjustments for inflation as measured by CPI.

PATCO, of course, is an amalgamation of the PRSL Main Line from Lindenwold to Camden, and the PTC Bridge Line from Broadway to 8th/Market, and the PTC Locust Street Subway south of Market Street. It is built to the same technical standards as the Broad Street Subway, with which it shared a common fleet in the PTC era. By repatriating PATCO, the next fleet replacement for both lines could be a common car, reaping economies of scale through a single order of 256 (or more) cars, rather than two separate (and tiny!) orders for the 121 PATCO cars and the 125 Broad Street cars. And reopening the track connection just south of Chinatown Station between the Ridge Spur and the Bridge Line would enable reconsolidation of heavy maintenance at either Fern Rock or Lindenwold, enabling further cost savings. And, of course, SEPTA would take over maintenance of PATCO’s infamous escalators and elevators, which PATCO has already partially contracted out to SEPTA anyway. If there is any starker measure of the difference between a large transit agency and a small one, it’s that SEPTA’s elevator and escalator maintenance is done by in-house employees, while PATCO contracts theirs out: SEPTA’s escalators usually work, while PATCO’s (until the SEPTA contract) usually don’t.

To prevent the bridge toll money from being siphoned away to expansion projects and suburban coverage routes far away from the Delaware River, SEPTA’s toll surplus revenue would be restricted to capital projects within 7.5 miles of one of the four bridges, or 16th and Locust. This is not to say that expansion to King of Prussia, Atglen, Quakertown, etc. aren’t worthy projects, but they are irrelevant to 99%+ of New Jerseyans crossing the bridges by any mode; Pennsylvania ought to come up with the money for these projects by itself. That 7.5 mile radius is to enable SEPTA to finance the conversion of all of its El and Subway stations to a tap-in/tap-out system, as PATCO has today. This would require more faregates at every station, but would enable SEPTA to maintain fare levels while accounting correctly for Bridge Line riders’ transfers, and creating equity for Pennsylvania-Pennsylvania Locust Street Subway riders vs. Market Street El riders. I don’t see much advantage in SEPTA adopting distance-based fares, as PATCO, the Washington Metro, or SEPTA’s own Regional Rail have, but it might be tempted to adapt Portland (OR) Tri-Met’s Fareless Square concept for short rides within Center City, where the travel demand pattern dictates it will always have some spare capacity, especially off-peak. (Note to SEPTA: if you’re seriously contemplating abolishing the free Amtrak transfer from 30th Street to Center City on Regional Rail, you had damn well better replace it with something.) All of this would be not only possible, but relatively inexpensive, after the advent of NPT later this year.

Another entity receiving a (fixed) percentage of the bridge toll surplus would be New Jersey Transit, with the proviso that the funds could only be spent on the Atlantic City Line, and bus routes from Philadelphia and Camden. Ideally, there would be sufficient funding for fare equity between the Atlantic City Line and the Bridge Line between Lindenwold and Philadelphia (today, the ACL’s fare is $5 to PATCO’s $3, for inferior service), as well as increased bus frequencies along major corridors across Camden, Burlington, and Gloucester Counties.

For now, though, the lion’s share of toll revenue would go towards the service of DRPA’s existing debt. There are important reasons why DRPA bondholders need to be included in the first tier of revenue recipients, alongside the operations budgets of the bridges themselves and before disbursements to SEPTA and NJT. For this reason as well, the time-of-day and level-of-transit-service pricing at the bridges needs to be roughly revenue-neutral, at least until the DRPA debt is largely retired. DRPA would be forced to retain legal existence, much as Robert Moses’s Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority still issues and services its debt under that name, even though it was subsumed into the Metropolitan Transportation Authority decades ago, and has been rebranded as MTA Bridges and Tunnels. Hopefully, DRPA would be reduced to a pro-forma Board of Directors, and a solitary office (for mail drop purposes) and conference room, instead of the cavernous One Port Center headquarters that stands across the street from the Camden Aquarium. The Board would meet once annually to renew its contracts with SEPTA and NJT, and do nothing else. Speaking of One Port Center, ownership should revert to either the City or County of Camden, which could then collect the rent from commercial office tenants, or sell the building.

To maintain political responsibility, and to provide an insurance policy against unforeseen circumstances and poorly negotiated terms, both the Pennsylvania side and the New Jersey side should have the option of unwinding this agreement unilaterally, on five years’ notice (the lead time to allow for unwinding the SEPTA/PATCO integration and to prevent politically-based money grabs). In the event that the agreement is negotiated properly, it should be decades before they want to; there’s too much gain to be captured from untapped economies of scale, not to mention the perpetual waste of the money-addicted and inefficient DRPA. Unlike DRPA, SEPTA has proved itself a good steward of limited money, and would appreciate a revenue stream for capital projects that was independent of the whims of the legislature in Harrisburg, almost as much as transit-hating Harrisburg would appreciate SEPTA never darkening its door again.

As for the titular ports of the Port Authority, they are self-funding and do not actually gain much value from the layer of bureaucracy “co-ordinating” the Ports of Philadelphia and Camden. It’s noteworthy that the Port Authority does not even control nearby port facilities along the Delaware River in Paulsboro, Eddystone, or Chester, much less further away but vastly more important ports like Wilmington. Reversion of control of the ports to the City of Philadelphia, and either the City or County of Camden, would be reasonable, and would put an end to further controversy and NIMBYism over dredging the shipping channel; Pennsylvania (assisted by the Feds) would pay, Pennsylvania would be responsible for disposing of the spoil, and New Jersey would shut up and deal (and free-ride, insofar as the Port of Camden remains a going concern).

Of course, it’s unlikely that a plan like this one will ever be implemented. Legislators and Governors in both states are too addicted to the patronage and graft possible from an unaccountable bistate entity. But the hue and cry to do something about the sorry state of PATCO and DRPA is growing, and Governors Corbett and Christie are desperate to restore their political fortunes ahead of elections. How tempting must it be for two Republican Governors, especially ones needing to appeal to conservative bases, to claim credit for putting an entire wasteful government bureaucracy to the torch? How tempting for Western PA legislators to put one over on the despised and ineffective Philadelphia delegation? How tempting for disgruntled North Jersey Democratic legislators, having now successfully destroyed Chris Christie’s Presidential aspirations, to team up with the Governor and Trenton Republicans for vengeance on George Norcross, the South Jersey Democratic machine boss who is largely responsible for Christie’s two gubernatorial wins as a Republican in a deeply Democratic state (and has now turned on Christie now that it’s electorally meaningless but politically astute)? How tempting for good-government progressives in both states to crush a source of machine political power once and for all?

The negotiation table sits empty and waiting. Waiting for somebody to pick up the torch.

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5 thoughts on “How do you solve a problem like DRPA? Kill it.”

  1. I wouldn’t worry about SEPTA cutting the free transfer from Amtrak — I’ve never seen conductors check for any fares between 30th and Market East, ever. There’s just not enough time to sweep all the cars. Calling it a free transfer is marketing a bug as a feature, NTTAWWT.

    1. I’m aware of that current lack of enforcement. NPT will involve the installation of faregates around the platforms at 30th Street, Suburban and Market East, which will change the enforcement rate from near 0% to 100%. There’s been a lot of speculation about whether and how the NPT system will be programmed to accommodate the Amtrak ticket line in the tarriff. All we know is that SEPTA did a one-day test at 30th Street on January 29th to collect data as to how many Amtrak ticketholders were going up to the SEPTA platforms. Data is good, but going to such lengths to collect this particular set of data is not something SEPTA does unles they were considering acting on it.

  2. I’m going to offer a simpler scheme based on some other examples…

    In Orange and Rockland Counties, NY, there are two Metro-North lines.
    …well, I call them Metro-North lines. Metro-North owns them. However, they contract with NJ Transit to operate them. They use NJ Transit equipment and appear on the NJ Transit schedules because they run right into the NJ Transit lines and terminate at Hoboken on NJ Transit. Metro-North sets the fares.

    In northwest Indiana, the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, a.k.a. South Shore Line owns the track up to the state line; on the Illinois side, the track is owned by Metra. there is one station in Illinois which is only served by the South Shore Line; after that the South Shore Line enters the Metra Electric line, serves two of its stations, and finally terminates at separate platforms in Millenium Station. South Shore Line sets fares for *Indiana* stations; Metra sets fares for *Illinois* stations; South Shore Line owns and operates trains; South Shore Line pays fees to Metra for access to its tracks; Metra compensates South Shore Line for providing service to the Illinois station. Each side maintains its own tracks, but may contract with each other.

    So, a similar arrangement for Phildaelphia and Camden:
    1 — Port of Philadelphia is returned to Philadelphia, for assessed value
    2 — Port of Camden is returned to Camden, for assessed vale
    3 — PATCO from the center of the bridge east is transferred to New Jersey ownership (probably NJT) for an assessed price
    4 — PATCO from the center of the bridge west is transferred to SEPTA ownership for an assessed price (which will be lower given that SEPTA owns the tunnels and leases them to PATCO IIRC)
    5 — NJT contracts with SEPTA to operate & maintain the line on the New Jersey side of the border
    6 — NJT sets fares on the New Jersey side of the border
    7 — Bridges are transferred to 50/50 ownership of SEPTA and NJT (split at the center of each bridge), along with maintenance duties, again for an assessed price. Toll changes require agreement of both agencies, but are automatically adjusted for inflation.
    8 — Each agency agrees to subcontract maintenance and tolling to one of the state highway departments or turnpike authorities
    9 — Bridge tolls are split 50/50 between SEPTA and NJT
    10 — The assessed payments from SEPTA and NJT are used to pay off or defease the Port Authority debt.
    11 — the debt is effectively refinanced by new SEPTA and NJT bonds to pay the assessed payments.

    You end up with each state owning its own property, setting fares on its own side, and contracting with the logical entity to manage it.

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