Court Rules NY Thruway’s Use of Truck Tolls for Canal System Unconstitutional

AASHTO Journal, 12 August 2016

A federal district judge ruled Aug. 10 that the New York State Thruway’s use of truck toll receipts to maintain the state’s canal system violates the “dormant commerce clause” of the U.S. Constitution, a decision that the American Trucking Associations suggested could resonate in other states as well.

The dormant commerce clause is an implied constitutional doctrine. It holds that since Congress has authority in the Constitution over interstate commerce, states cannot improperly burden or restrict that traffic.

dollarpump.jpgThe ATA was one of the plaintiffs arguing that truckers using the Thruway were being forced to pay fees well in excess of amounts required to maintain the Thruway system itself, because tolls were being spent on canals they do not use in freight traffic.

“ATA believed that the courts and Constitution were clear – revenue from tolls must be spent maintaining the roads they’re collected on and not diverted to finance bike paths and waterways for recreational kayaking and canoeing,” ATA President Chris Spear said in a news release. “We hope today’s ruling will not only end this practice in New York, but dissuade other states from financing their budget shortfalls on the backs of our industry.”

Reuters reported Judge Colleen McMahon agreed with the ATA that the Thruway Authority unlawfully burdens interstate commerce by diverting more than $61 million a year in highway tolls to maintain the canals.

New York since 1992 has placed its set of historic barge and recreational canals under the Thruway Authority, which meant the state no longer had to use general budget funds to operate and maintain the canals.

The court’s decision said in 2014 the Thruway collected $664 million in tolls from highway motorists but only spent about $359 million that year in non-canal expenses. It also said that in 2014 the Authority contributed between $65.9 million and $92.9 million for canal operating expenses.

The judge also noted that in 2011 commercial truckers accounted for 37 percent of the Thruway’s toll revenue. The decision clears the way for the plaintiffs to seek damages.

The judge called New York’s canal system, which includes many recreational trails, “a jewel in the crown of the Empire State” that some combinations of its actual users, benefiting local businesses and taxpayers should want to support.

But, she said, the State of New York cannot insulate the Canal System from the vagaries of the political process and taxpayer preferences by imposing the cost of its upkeep on those on drive the New York Thruway in interstate commerce.”

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