Thursday, January 12, 2012

39 Steps or a Ramp: DRPA Postpones Ben Franklin Bridge Decision (Again)

Credit: Alejandro Alvarez
At yesterday's DRPA Finance Committee meeting, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and Tri-State Transportation Campaign submitted a host of materials supporting the restoration of funding for the Camden-side ramp. DRPA received:
  • 18 letters from area businesses and organizations (including Campbell's Soup, Concerned Citizens of North Camden and AARP New Jersey).
  • The comments from over 1000 petition signers asking that DRPA restore funding for the ramp in its 2012 Capital Program.
  • A joint letter from Senators Lautenberg and Menendez, hand-delivered to CEO Matheussen at the beginning of the meeting.
  • After the meeting, Rutgers-Camden also delivered a letter.
DRPA staff prepared a resolution at the direction of PA Auditor General Jack Wagner, and the resolution was discussed at the meeting. Robert Teplitz, the Auditor General's General Counsel, attended the meeting and spoke up for the need to put the ramp back into the Capital Program. After much discussion, the Finance Committee decided to ask DRPA staff to look into non-DRPA sources of funding and will take up the topic again at its Operations and Management meeting on February 1st.

Much of the funding discussion at the meeting focused on accessing other non-DRPA public funds to pay for the ramp. Commissioner Nash specifically noted that DVRPC was about to announce a competitive Congestion Mitigation Air Quality (CMAQ) funding round, which will make $3 million available to New Jersey Projects.

While it's perhaps understandable that DRPA might want to explore other sources of funding, there are problems with going to the Federal trough:
  • Funds will not be available until late 2012 or early 2013, delaying the start of the project by about a year. Design and construction work for the project will take at least 18 months to complete.
  • The extra environmental work and bidding requirements attached to Federal Transportation projects will increase the cost and the completion time for the project, adding another year and an undetermined amount of money.
  • Congress has a moratorium on earmarks (known locally as demo projects) so that kind of money is highly unlikely (remember the "Bridge to Nowhere"?).
  • DVRPC's CMAQ program is competitive and intended for local governments and agencies to promote innovative clean air programs that are not always bicycle and pedestrian oriented (e.g. synchronized signals, hybrid shuttle buses.) Typically about 20-30 applications are submitted. In the past, DVRPC has doled out the money equitably by county (2002 Competitive CMAQ summary report).
  • Most importantly, DRPA already has $10 million available in the 2012 Capital Program. This money was originally earmarked for Economic Development, but was not spent and returned to the Capital Program at the December 2011 meeting. If not spent on a specific project, the funds may be used to fill in cost overruns for the existing Capital Program.
While the Bicycle Coalition doesn't oppose the use of non-DRPA funding to help build the ramp, we do believe that the DRPA should restore the original $3.2 million to pay for and build the ramp. The ramp is intrinsic to the Ben Franklin Bridge and the responsible agency for maintaining and operating the bridge (DRPA) should not treat the ramp like a frivolous embellishment to be paid for when convenient with other people's money.

Final engineering will determine the real cost of the ramp. Committing $3.2 million toward the project will help leverage any external funding sources that would be needed to complete the ramp in a timely manner. Waiting around for an earmark or studying innovative funding opportunities smacks of delay tactics. Either DRPA commits to building this ramp or they do not.

We encourage people to keep signing our petition. The Operation and Management meeting is at 8AM on February 1st at DRPA Offices at One Port Center in Camden and we will be encouraging people to join us at that public meeting.