This story appears in the Aug. 15 print edition of Transport Topics.
It is unconstitutional for the New York State Thruway Authority to use millions of dollars in toll revenue paid by commercial truckers to maintain the state’s canal system, a federal judge ruled Aug. 10.
The opinion by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, in an appeals decision, determined the Thruway Authority’s diversion of toll revenue from truckers for the canals violates the U.S. Constitution’s Dormant Commerce Clause.
“Obviously, commercial truckers do not use the barge canals; they haul freight on the highway. The truckers may wish to enjoy bike paths, hiking trails and museums on a vacation, but they are irrelevant while sitting in the cab of an 18-wheeler,” Chief Judge Colleen McMahon wrote.
“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 who drive the New York Thruway in interstate commerce,” the judge added.
The ruling marked a significant victory for American Trucking Associations and three motor carriers that were plaintiffs challenging the Thruway Authority’s practice.
“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,” said Chris Spear, ATA’s president. “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.”
ATA acting general counsel Rich Pianka added: “It is certainly true that the canal system is a valuable asset for the state of New York and the communities along it. However, the residents of the state and those communities — not trucks passing through the state — should bear the burden of supporting the canal.”
The Trucking Association of New York has long fought against the use of toll revenue to subsidize New York’s canal system. “For years, the trucking industry has seen their toll dollars used to support the canal system — a system they do not use — rather than being invested back into the Thruway,” said Kendra Hems, president of the Trucking Association of New York. “We appreciate ATA’s attention to this issue and hope that this decision will discourage other states from funding non-transportation-related projects on the back of the trucking industry.”
ATA had contended that the “excessive tolls” charged to truckers harmed consumers as well by prompting the potential increase in the price of consumer goods across local and regional economies.
Jennifer Givner, director of media relations and communications with the Thruway Authority and Canal Corp., told Transport Topics the authority is “reviewing this decision and evaluating our next steps.”
Separate from the court ruling, Givner noted the governor’s office and the state Legislature approved transfer of the responsibility of paying for the canal system to the New York Power Authority in this year’s budget.
“Since April 1, NYPA has been funding the Canal Corp.’s operations and, per the legislation, the transfer will be completed Jan. 1,” she added.
The Thruway Authority charges tolls along key corridors for interstate commerce. The Thruway is the Empire State’s portion of the National Interstate Highway System, stretching 570 miles. It includes segments of interstates 87, 90, 95, 190 and 287. A prominent artery of interstate commerce in the Northeast, the corridor serves as a critical route for commercial truckers across the region.
In 2000, the National Park Service designated the Canal System’s 524 miles and its surrounding communities the “Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor.”