This morning's Delaware River Port Authority board meeting was about as jam-packed and exciting as transportation authority board meetings can get, replete with (extremely respectful) demonstrators, (long-planned) approvals for major projects, (somewhat underwhelming) updates on other major projects, and a (drama-free) shake-up of the Authority's leadership.
Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale was unanimously elected to replace former Lt. Governer Jim Cawley as DRPA chair. Cawley, Tom Corbett’s running mate, lost re-election last November. Cawley will soon start at his new job as President of the United Way for Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey.
Now that he chairs the board, DePasquale will no longer rely on IBEW Local 98 business manager John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty Jr. to sit as his designee. “Obviously, I will call him up for ideas, but I’ll be here - chairing - now,” DePasquale said following the meeting.
The DRPA board is comprised of an even split of 16 representatives from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Of Pennsylvania’s eight representatives, six are appointed by the governor to five-year terms, and two are ex-officio members – Pennsylvania’s Auditor General and Treasurer – who often name designees to attend on their behalf. DePasquale has held his seat since his election in 2013, but regularly sent Dougherty as his proxy.
The auditor general also chaired the authority's audit committee, which will now search for a new chairperson. DRPA’s internal governance has been a relatively hot issue as of late, following a federal investigation that focused on the allegedly corrupt nature of the authority’s past economic development spending, the abrupt resignation of its first inspector general, and the recent failure of NJ lawmakers to pass a reorganization bill that would institutionalize and strengthen many of the current board's recently enacted, but just as easily recanted, reforms. Changes to the port authority’s governance require legislation from both states - Pennsylvania’s legislature already passed a version of the bill.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf took office yesterday and has not yet named a replacement for Cawley. DRPA oversees operations on the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Betsy Ross and Commodore Barry Bridges and the PATCO speedline.
After dispensing with the formalities of selecting a new chair, the DRPA board got down to business.
The board approved a resolution proposed earlier this month to sell the RiverLink Ferry to a joint venture between the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation and the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership. In an interview, DRWC President Tom Corcoran said he was "very pleased" and "excited" to be taking control of the ferry, which the economic development agency will complement with a small fleet of three water taxis it has had sitting around, unused, for years.
The water taxis, which can hold 22 passengers, will operate on "slow days, when you don't need a  passenger ferry," said Corcoran. During what Corcoran called "'all hands on deck' events" such as the Fourth of July or this summer's planned tall ship festival, the water taxis will supplement the ferry, rather than replace it.
Prior to the vote, Chairman DePasquale noted that Governor Wolf didn’t oppose the sale, but still “did wish it wasn’t happening the day after his swearing in,” because that meant his staff didn’t have time to review the sale. While “wishing the timing could be better,” Vice-Chairman Jeffery Nash noted that this sale was two years in the making and, unless approved at today’s meeting, DRPA would be stuck running the Riverlink for yet another year. “It's now or never,” Nash said.
While the lawyers still need to iron out the details, basic terms have been agreed to. DRPA is getting $300,000 over ten years for the ferry. The DRWC/CFP joint venture will assume all liabilities for the aging ship, which can transport over 500 passengers across the river at a time. In the event the joint venture defaults on the sale agreement or fails to run the ferry, the DRPA will have an option to take it back. Corcoran said he expects the Riverlink to be operating by Memorial Day, which is also when the DRWC plans to re-open last year's wildly successful Spruce Street Harbor Park.
The board also approved a finance committee resolution to allow Comcast to install its XFINITY wifi in its stations. The internet access will be free to both passengers and PATCO, and should be fully operational by July. While broadband access will only be available at the stations, and not along the entire route, riders still go dark when they go underground because PATCO doesn’t yet have cellular coverage in its tunnels. However, PATCO General Manager John Rink did note in passing that his staff was working with Verizon to improve coverage along the underground sections.
One station won’t get wifi, though – at least not just yet. Franklin Square station, which has been shuttered since 1979, will only get wifi when – or if – it re-opens. In December, the DRPA board approved $500,000 to study reopening the ghost station under Sixth and Race Streets. Chief Engineer Michael Venuto reported that the consultant's feasibility and expected ridership report was still being reviewed by his staff. Venuto predicted it would be finalized in time for the board’s February meeting.
PATCO General Manager John Rink announced that PATCO riders would be able to use their Freedom Cards on SEPTA Key system. The announcment came in response to a question posed by DRPA Citizens Advisory Committee Secretary Anthony DeSantis.
SEPTA Key is the authority’s long-anticipated new payment technology that will replace the current fare system of tokens, passes and exact-change with a single card fare system. Freedom Card holders will have their SEPTA fares deducted from their Freedom Card accounts.
Freedom Card holders will also enjoy skipping the transfer gate. “The transfer that you have to purchase when you go through our fare gates will also be removed,” said Rink.
While Freedom Cards will work on SEPTA Key, the opposite won’t be true: SEPTA’s cards won’t work on PATCO. Rink expressed hope that could happen at some point in the future, but confirmed it won’t be a feature when SEPTA Key debuts in 2016.
Freedom Card holders will need to register their cards before they can use them on SEPTA’s system. PATCO already recommends holders register their cards –cards, and the money held on them, can be replaced if they’re registered.
A handful of respectful demonstrators from the Friends of Cooper River West held signs throughout the meeting, waiting for the open comment period to express their frustration over delays in DRPA’s planned transfer of a stretch of land to create a Camden “Gateway Park” along the river.
The DRPA authorized transferring 18 parcels along the Cooper River to the Camden County Municipal Utility Authority and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation last April. That transfer was supposed to take “a few weeks” but still hasn’t occurred.
Deputy CEO Michael Conallen blamed the delay on unexpectedly lengthy environmental remediation on “five or six” of the park’s over twenty parcels, noting that the CCUMA refused to accept the transfer until all the environmental remediation requirements were met. DRPA acquired the 4.3 mile strip between the Cooper River and the Admiral Wilson Boulevard in 2000 during the lead-up to the RNC National Convention. Prior to that, the now fallow, fenced-off area was a strip overrun by roach motels and go-go bars – a sight too unseemly for then-NJ Governor Christie Whitman to subject to RNC attendees driving in from Cherry Hill hotels.
DRPA Vice Chairman Nash, who is also a Camden County Freeholder, assured the demonstrators that the park would open this spring, regardless of who controlled it. “The park will be open and the community will enjoy it, whether these issues are resolved or not.”
“It doesn’t matter who owns it – the public owns it and it will be open,” said Nash.
A representative from the Friends of Cooper River West thanked Nash, but added that they group would keep him to his promise.
The park is now expected to open by April 25th, the weekend after Earth Day.