News that a grand jury is considering possible corruption in the award of economic development funds by the Delaware River Port Authority to politically connected recipients makes Peter Hendee Brown’s posting on the DRPA on this site especially timely. What the DRPA is supposed to do and how it operates is hard to grasp from the many news accounts that has put the agency in the news over time. Brown provides the background that helps make sense of the agency’s central importance to the region and the structural problems that arise from its operations.
When I first returned to the area after a long absence to write a book on Camden in the late 1990s, I was surprised at the way DRPA operated, not as an agent for regional development but as a cash cow that directed funds in equal portions to Pennsylvania and New Jersey without an overall strategic plan. Some projects made immediate sense, such as refitting the Philadelphia Navy Yard in the aftermath of the government’s departure from the site. Other investments were harder to sell. Spokesmen for the agency often talked about building tourism, for instance, by making investments on both sides of the Delaware River, and some good results came from that vision as well, not the least funds that helped make the President’s House memorial in Philadelphia a reality. But building tourism—which might conceivably generate returns by increasing tolls over bridges connecting the two states—was never central to DRPA’s goal. Supporting allies and garnering political credits appears to have topped the list of priorities, to say nothing of the financial benefits that might be gained through related contracts and political donations, among other things.
As Brown indicates, the creation of the DRPA was part of a movement to remove from politics certain public investments operating as non-partisan authorities. As Louise Dyble’s devastating critique of the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District, Paying the Toll: Local Power, Regional Politics, and the Golden Gate Bridge, demonstrates, reigning in such authorities can be difficult indeed, and holding them accountable nearly impossible. DRPA may not reach that standard, but accountability remains a concern to the many people who continue to pay tolls into this organization’s coffers.
Whether an indictment will follow the grand jury’s investigation, DRPA deserves close scrutiny. We hope that our fellow citizens in the greater Philadelphia region will be aided in their assessment of the DRPA by Brown’s essay. Certainly, none of us have heard the last about controversies surrounding this important player in our region.