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Planning board pushing 422 toll/transit plan shutting out public access

By   /   September 16, 2011  /   3 Comments

Local officials asking congressman to investigate
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — The agency pushing for tolls and a new commuter rail line on the U.S. Route 422 corridor has refused to give information used in creating this plan to the public — at least for now.

In fact, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, or DVRPC, a metropolitan planning agency responsible for the tolling proposal, argues that it is not subject to the state’s right-to-know law and does not have to disclose information, so it can be independently verified.
The commission’s assertion, however, has not stopped the Pennsylvania Transit Expansion Coalition, or PA-TEC, a citizen’s group opposed to the Route 422 tolling plan, from seeking information on projected train ridership.
For the past two months, DVRPC has denied several right-to-know requests filed by PA-TEC.
Although the state Office of Open Records has ruled in favor of PA-TEC, DVRPC is asking Commonwealth Court to review and reverse that decision.
PA-TEC is seeking information on how the DVRPC compiled a ridership projection for a proposed rail line between Norristown and Reading, which will be financed entirely by toll revenue from nearby Route 422. John Frey, a member of the group, said PA-TEC wants to verify the projection’s accuracy, but has been blocked at every turn by the commission.
“Their numbers aren’t confirmable, because they refuse to share their research,” said Frey, who has filed several of the right-to-know requests with DVRPC.
DVRPC’s preliminary plan estimates about 3,500 riders per day will use the line, but the commission has refused to release details on how that estimate was reached.
By comparison, Route 422 handles about 110,000 vehicles per weekday. The price tag for the project is $750 million.
While the commuter line would relieve a small percentage of the daily traffic, Frey said he believes DVRPC’s estimates are higher than can be expected realistically. With seven planned stations, the commission is anticipating about 500 riders per station each day, which is normal for large stations in more densely populated suburbs, but not for the relatively rural area served by the proposed new line.
Candy Snyder, communications director for DVRPC, assured PA-TEC members via email that “extensive public outreach” will occur this fall, once the final plan is ready. For now, “any DVRPC records are pre-decisional, deliberative and strategic and therefore exempt” from the state’s right-to-know law, she wrote, and anything that can be made public is available.
This week, local officials in East Coventry Township, a northern Chester County community of 6,600 in the Route 422 corridor, sent a letter to U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Pa, asking his office to “investigate the practices and funding” of DVRPC.
“I believe this conduct is outrageous,” wrote East Coventry Township Supervisor Michael Moyer to Gerlach in a letter obtained by PA Independent. “How can a public agency which accepts state and federal tax dollars claim, essentially, it’s above the law and not subject to Right to Know Laws?”
In court filings, the commission said it does not have to turn over the data, because DVRPC was created by the federal government and spans five counties in Pennsylvania and four counties in New Jersey, causing it to fall outside of the jurisdiction of state and local agencies, which are covered by the law.
In an interview this week, DVRPC executive director Barry Seymour declined to discuss the ongoing legal issues between his agency and PA-TEC.
“We don’t want to release the reports until they are complete,” Seymour said. “We will provide all reports as they are available.”
Seymour stood by the estimated ridership figures, pointing out that 600,000 people live within five miles of the seven planned transit stations.
Whether DVRPC has followed proper legal procedure, some are skeptical of the way the agency handled the tolling plan.
State Rep. Tom Quigley, R-Montgomery, said DVRPC erred by taking the plan to the state before it explained to local residents why tolling the highway was a good idea.
“There is a general sense of discontent with the government,” Quigley said. “Why are they asking us to pay more when maybe some of the money wasn’t spent wisely in the past?”
DVRPC presented the tolling plan in July to Gov. Tom Corbett’s Transportation Funding Advisory Commission, which was looking for solutions to close a $3.5 billion infrastructure funding gap.
In the end, the commission sent the governor recommendations for generating $2.7 billion in annually recurring infrastructure revenue, but did not including tolling, though Secretary of Transportation Barry Schoch said tolls would have to be part of the state’s long-term transportation plan.
Even if DVRPC’s projections for the rail line are accurate, residents and lawmakers question whether taking 3,500 riders off the highway will make enough of a difference to justify a $750 million investment.
“When I look at it, I see a big piece of that (spending) is for a rail line that is not — by their own projections — going to put much of a dent in congestion problem,” said state Rep. Warren Kampf, R-Chester.