Op-ed By Larry Farnese

Much has been written lately about mismanagement, waste, fraud, patronage, and political favoritism at the Delaware River Port Authority. But these revelations raise bigger questions: What exactly does the DRPA do? And how does management of port and transportation assets affect our economy and infrastructure?

The DRPA operates four bridges linking Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as well as the PATCO high-speed rail line. It also manages the seasonal river ferry between Philadelphia and Camden and the infrequently used cruise ship terminal in the Navy Yard.

What most people don’t know is that despite its name, the Delaware River Port Authority doesn’t own, lease, operate, or have anything to do with regional ports.

In contrast, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey owns and operates six bridges and tunnels, five airports, five major port terminals, the PATH rail lines between North Jersey and Manhattan, and nearly a dozen other properties related to commerce and transportation. Despite their centuries-old rivalry, New York and New Jersey have worked together to successfully manage a large portfolio of port and transportation assets.

But in Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey, such assets are controlled by a hodgepodge of agencies, each with its own provincial interests. In addition to the DRPA, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have their own state-controlled port agencies, the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority and the South Jersey Port Corp. The region’s only major international airport, meanwhile, is owned by the cash-strapped city of Philadelphia. And there’s another bistate agency running the bridges north of Philadelphia.

As business becomes more global, a competitive region needs first-class ports and easy access to international travel. In the coming years, dredging of the Delaware could create thousands of port jobs. At the same time, we face significant transportation funding issues, and waterfront development has been halting. That leaves us less prepared for new opportunities and challenges.

Our ports should be unified under one agency to think regionally and compete globally. And we should consider integration of other transportation assets.

Merging the ports is not a new idea. Officials from Pennsylvania and New Jersey discussed it as long ago as 1988. Govs. Robert Casey and Christie Whitman even signed legislation authorizing a new, unified port agency in a ceremony aboard the Spirit of Philadelphia in 1994. But political turf wars killed the idea.

Given the mess at the DRPA, some will recoil at the thought of making it a larger agency with a broader scope. However, as officials recognized long ago, a single, unified port authority would actually reduce the number of bureaucracies and under-the-radar political fiefdoms.

Right now, the debate over free E-ZPasses and patronage jobs continues. Lost in the shuffle is what these agencies mean to the future of our region.

We must eliminate the culture of greed and secrecy that has taken hold at the DRPA. But we should also look beyond the present crisis and recognize this opportunity to unify regional assets that are crucial to job creation and global competition.