August 11, 2016 9:00 AM, EDT

Judge Rules Collection of Toll Revenue From Truckers to Pay for N.Y. Canals Unconstitutional

Doug Kerr/Flickr

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 [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,” according to Chief Judge Colleen McMahon.

“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 who 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 and CEO. “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.”

“The residents of the state and those communities – not trucks passing through the state — should bear the burden of supporting the canal,” added ATA acting general counsel Rich Pianka.

"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. 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," said Kendra Hems, president of the Trucking Association of New York.

Jennifer Givner, director of media relations and communications with the Thruway Authority and Canal Corporation, 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 the transfer of the Canal Corp. 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.

Last year, the federal appeals court reinstated ATA’s lawsuit against the Thruway Authority after a dismissal on technical grounds.

The Thruway Authority charges tolls along key corridors for interstate commerce. In 2000, the National Parks Service designated the Canal System’s 524 miles and its surrounding communities the “Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor.”