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$500,000 Barnes Foundation grant questioned

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An obscure but important early player in the now widely criticized plan to move the Barnes Foundation’s unique collection of Post-Impressionist, early Modern and other art from a residential suburb to a redevelopment area five miles away in downtown Philadelphia came under fire at the agency’s Wednesday board meeting after months of mounting complaints.

The Delaware River Port Authority, a Camden, N.J.-based regional transportation agency for southern New Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania, has been sharply rebuked for what Bloomberg News called ‘nepotism and conflicts of interest’ in its operations. The Port Authority last year collected almost $300 million in bridge tolls, commuter rail fares and other revenue.

In January 2003 the Delaware River Port Authority allocated $500,000 to the Barnes Foundation to help relocate the art collection to Philadelphia. The unusual transit authority grant came almost two years before a local court made a controversial ruling that allowed the move.

A Rutgers University economist said that neither the Delaware Port Authority nor the Barnes had done economic impact studies before the expenditure was approved. Agency commissioners announced Wednesday that the authority will cease doing economic development work unrelated to transportation.

Friends of the Barnes Foundation, a citizens group that opposes the relocation, commissioned a study of the grant last year from Rutgers University economics professor-emeritus Matityahu Marcus, which raised doubts about the gift. Marcus’ report found ‘no available evidence that established economic criteria have been employed to assess the project’s desirability by any of the parties involved,’ including the Port Authority and the Barnes Foundation.

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Marcus, a widely published specialist in public utilities operations, also questioned claims that a relocated Barnes would have a significant impact on local tourism, as those supporting the plan hope.

Representatives of the community group who attended the Port Authority meeting issued a statement describing the grant as ‘pork barrel politics’ and called for an investigation into the Barnes gift.

The Associated Press, which described the Delaware River Port Authority as ‘a vestige of political patronage’ in the area, reported that commissioners at the meeting also approved ‘opening the bi-state agency’s books to regular audits; complying with open-records laws; ending closed-door caucus sessions, and banning no-bid contracts and the hiring of family of employees.’

-- Christopher Knight

Follow me @twitter.com/KnightLAT
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