April 4, 2018 1:00 PM, EDT

Truckers Ask Court to Halt Pennsylvania Turnpike Toll Payments to PennDOT

Mark Danielson/Flickr

Groups representing truckers and other motorists asked a federal judge April 2 to halt the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s payments to PennDOT for state transportation projects while the court decides their claims that turnpike tolls are unconstitutionally excessive.

The organizations sued last month, alleging the commission collects in tolls more than twice what it costs to operate the 550-mile highway system. Because the tolls bear little relationship to the use of the turnpike or the benefit they receive, they violate the U.S. Constitution’s protection of the right to travel and limitation on state laws that affect interstate commerce, the proposed class action lawsuit claims.

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In the 2017 fiscal year, the turnpike’s toll revenue of more than $1.1 billion was more than double its operating expenses of $517 million, according to the commission’s annual financial report. The commission has increased tolls for the past 10 years and has projected additional increases until 2044 to pay for obligations to pay for transportation elsewhere in the state.

Under a 2007 transportation funding plan, the turnpike commission pays PennDOT for aviation, freight and passenger rail and marine transportation projects across Pennsylvania to the tune of $450 million a year. Under a 2013 amendment, the turnpike’s payments will drop to $50 million a year, but not until 2023. The programs, which include projects such as a transportation facility with bicycle parking and kayak storage, and the restoration of stone bridges on a Philadelphia-area commuter rail line, should not be paid for with turnpike tolls, the suit says.

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“The excess money is being spent on things that provide no benefit to you as turnpike users,” said Washington, D.C., attorney Paul D. Cullen Sr., whose firm represents the truckers and other motorists.

Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo did not return a call. A spokesman for Gov. Tom Wolf, who also is named as a defendant, declined comment.

In its filing April 2, the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents truckers, and the National Motorists Association, which advocates for drivers’ rights, argued the court must ensure the turnpike commission will be able to repay turnpike users if the suit is successful. To do that, the court must halt its payments to PennDOT. The commission’s next quarterly payment to PennDOT is due April 30, the filing notes, arguing that the need for an injunction is immediate.

The filing also argues that the turnpike commission has issued $5.8 billion in bonds on which it pays principal and interest to private bondholders. Once the commission uses toll revenue to repay its debt, the plaintiffs will not have a realistic chance of recovering the money, the filing says. The plaintiffs also would be unable to recover the toll money if the turnpike commission uses it to issue additional bonds or PennDOT uses it to fund projects unrelated to the turnpike, the filing states.

Arguing that the plaintiffs are likely to prevail in their claims that the tolls are unconstitutionally excessive, the filing highlights a similar case in New York, where truckers challenged the use of New York Thruway tolls to pay for the restoration and upkeep of the state’s historic canal system. The court found that the 9-14% of thruway users’ tolls that supported the canal system made them unconstitutionally excessive.

“The truckers may wish to enjoy bike paths, hiking trails, and museums while on vacation, but they are irrelevant when sitting in the cab of an 18-wheeler,” the court said. The decision was later overturned when an appeals court found that Congress explicitly authorized the use of excess tolls to fund the canal system.

The same conclusions apply to Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls, the truckers and motorists associations argue. Tolls are being diverted to projects unrelated to the turnpike, a fact which officials touted in 2008 after the passage of the funding plan and just before a 25% increase in tolls took effect, the suit notes.

“Turnpike tolls should be spent on operations, maintenance, reconstruction, and improvements on the turnpike itself, including rest stops and service plazas, law enforcement to patrol the turnpike, and other costs that are functionally related to and benefit turnpike travelers,” the filing says.

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