Truckers argue toll bridge hikes are too high

| 1/17/2005

A federal judge said last week that he agrees with the merits of a lawsuit challenging the latest toll hike imposed on commercial drivers by the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission.

But U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter also said Tuesday, Jan. 11, that truckers might not legally be able to challenge toll fees in federal court.

The New Jersey Motor Truck Association, Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, American Trucking Association and Ohio-based Roadway Express filed their complaint in December 2002, a couple of weeks after the bridge commission increased car and truck tolls.

The truckers are pressing for a rollback in truck tolls from the current $2.75-per-axle fee to $2.25 per axle.

They claim the current fee is not “just and reasonable” given that the commission has a surplus of $118 million, almost three times its $40 million operating budget, The Express-Times reported.

“That strikes me as being way too much of a reserve,” Buckwalter said Tuesday during an argument session in Philadelphia with attorneys for the plaintiffs and the bridge commission. “I don’t see how (the commission) can hold that kind of cash.”

Yet he hinted he would dismiss the suit, based on a 1987 law that ended federal reviews of tolls.

Bridge commission attorney James M. McMaster said the commission has always operated with a large surplus in case unforeseen events require additional spending, and toll increases “take a long time” to approve. According to local media, the commission had a $48 million surplus at the end of 2002, only weeks after enacting toll increases for the first time since 1988.

Commission officials have said the toll increases were needed to pay for a 10-year, $526 million maintenance plan and create a $300 million insurance reserve in case of terrorism.

The commission is a bistate agency responsible for 20 bridges between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Seven are toll bridges.