Federal judge tosses out truckers toll challenge

| 2/10/2005

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit challenging toll increases imposed on commercial truckers by the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission.

U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter ruled the plaintiffs cannot legally challenge the toll fees in federal court, even though he had said previously that he agreed with the truckers’ point of view.

The New Jersey Motor Truck Association, Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, ATA and Ohio-based Roadway Express filed a suit to rollback truck tolls from the current $2.75-per-axle fee to $2.25 per axle.

They said 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.

“Because plaintiffs do not have a private cause of action … I do not have to decide whether the tolls imposed are just and reasonable,” Buckwalter said in his ruling Feb. 8.

The judge said a 1987 law that ended federal reviews of tolls “does not explicitly create a private cause of action to enforce it.” He also said there was “no implied right of action” in cases about the statute’s construction.

During a recent hearing in Philadelphia with attorneys for the plaintiffs and the bridge commission, Buckwalter said he agreed with the merits of the truckers’ suit but wasn’t sure if the plaintiffs had the right to challenge the tolls. He said a $118 million surplus “strikes me as being way too much of a reserve.”

Bridge commission attorney James M. McMaster said at the time the commission had always operated with a large surplus in case unforeseen events required additional spending because toll increases “take a long time” to approve. According to local media, the agency 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 bi-state agency responsible for 20 bridges between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Seven are toll bridges.