Politics power move: Cherelle Parker, expected candidate for Philly mayor, elected DRPA chair

The bi-state organization runs PATCO and is in charge of tolls on four Delaware River bridges.

Councilmember Cherelle Parker in 2019

Councilmember Cherelle Parker in 2019

Jared Piper / Philadelphia City Council Flickr
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One of the region’s most politically powerful government boards has elected Philadelphia City Councilmember Cherelle Parker as its new leader.

Parker will be the first woman to serve as board chair for the Delaware River Port Authority — the bi-state organization that oversees Pennsylvania and New Jersey’s four river-spanning bridges and the PATCO High Speedline. The 16-member board approved her appointment Wednesday morning.

The post as chair of the DRPA Board of Commissioners represents a political boon for the Democratic lawmaker, who is widely considered a candidate for Philadelphia’s next mayor.

Parker, who was not a member of the DRPA board prior to the appointment, replaces outgoing chair Ryan Boyer, the union leader of the Laborers District Council of Philadelphia and Vicinity. Boyer abruptly resigned last month after more than five years leading the board.

The 16-member DRPA board controls the bridges that connect Pennsylvania and New Jersey, overseeing a $305 million annual operating budget and deciding hot-button issues like toll increases — which haven’t happened in over a decade.

Parker said the agency’s work is critical to Philadelphia’s economy.

“The Authority’s four bridges and PATCO high-speed line serve millions of commuters and local businesses,” Parker said in a statement. “Those businesses are the lifeblood of our local economy and the DRPA plays an important role in ensuring the region stays connected.”

The agency has faced scrutiny over the last decade for allegedly blocking audits, spending of economic stimulus money on non-transportation projects, and political cronyism.

A 2012 report from the New Jersey comptroller found the agency squandered millions of toll payers’ dollars through mismanagement, alleging people in the know “treated the DRPA like a personal ATM.” At one point, agency executives and their family members once enjoyed free E-ZPass perks for family and friends.

Last year, activists protested the agency’s Camden headquarters last year to demand a probe of two suspect land deals the DRPA had a hand in. The agency, which has vowed for increased transparency in recent years, said it had nothing to hide from investigators.

Employing nearly 875 people, the agency also manages a $846 million five-year capital project budget that fuels bridge repairs and PATCO improvements — like installing solar panels at train stations.

Like other government agencies, DRPA now faces a tough financial landscape due to the pandemic. The agency reported double-digit declines in bridge traffic last year after stay-at-home orders went into effect. PATCO has received some federal relief for operations.

Both Pennsylvania and New Jersey hold eight commissioner slots on the board, appointed by each state governor. While positions are unpaid, the board has long been viewed as a stronghold of political players, stacked with union leaders, corporate executives as well as elected officials and their allies from both states.

Governor-appointed board members from both sides voted to elect Parker, who rose through the Pa. House of Representatives and later inherited the throne of her mentor, former Councilmember Marianne Tasco. She has represented parts of Northwest and lower Northeast Philly since 2016.

Some of the region’s political leaders geared up to congratulate Parker ahead of the election. A press release for the announcement included accolades from the Philadelphia City Council President, two SEPTA leaders and various union leaders.

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