Crossing the Delaware

Two states that share a river can't agree on what to do with it.
by | January 2007

Anyone who has a troublesome neighbor can appreciate the difficulties New Jersey and Pennsylvania are going through right now. But states, unlike homeowners, can't pack up and move, so these two neighbors will have to find some way of resolving a dispute that threatens the use of one of the largest commuting corridors in the country.

The two states jointly operate the Delaware River Port Authority. The authority operates four bridges, as well as a rail line that serves 35,000 passengers a day riding to and from Philadelphia. But the board that oversees the authority hasn't met for more than a year.

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, the board chairman, wants the river to be dredged five feet deeper. New Jersey objects. As a result, Rendell and his state have been boycotting the board, keeping it from meeting. Day-to-day operations haven't been affected as yet, but the lack of action is costing the authority $750,000 a month, say officials on the Jersey side, because of their inability to close a bond refinancing deal.

Board action would also be needed before the Walt Whitman Bridge across the Delaware could be repaved, or any new contracts or budgets could be approved. "The issue here is not whether we should dredge the river," complains New Jersey Congressman Rob Andrews. "The issue is whether the authority should go back to work."

The problem for New Jersey is that there's nothing the state can do to force Rendell back to the table. Some multistate compacts allow for an outside arbiter, but where each state has an equal vote, the federal courts have been reluctant to impose a solution upon bickering parties. "I always recommend some type of tie-breaking mechanism to states drafting compacts," says Joseph Zimmerman, a SUNY Albany law professor and author of a book on the subject.

So for now, Pennsylvania seems to have the upper hand. There has been a quiet agreement among board leaders to meet to work out safety issues. But each side seems intent on holding its collective breath until the other gives in. And it seems unlikely that there will be any public pressure to resolve the impasse. The one thing voters know for sure is that as long as the authority can't meet, it can't increase tolls.

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