Truckers' lawsuit against New York Thruway tolls will proceed

By David Tanner, Land Line senior editor | 8/12/2015

A U.S. Circuit Court judge has given the go-ahead for a lawsuit by the American Trucking Associations and three trucking companies to proceed against the New York State Thruway Authority. The plaintiffs say diverting toll revenue to the state’s canal system violates the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

ATA along with Wadhams Enterprises Inc., Lightning Express Delivery Service Inc., and Ward Transport & Logistics Corp. filed the lawsuit in November 2013 against the Thruway Authority, the New York State Canal Corporation, and eight individuals in their capacities with those entities. The case has faced numerous technical hurdles and filings since then.

On Tuesday, Aug. 4, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the case can proceed based on merit.

Richard Pianka, chief litigation counsel for the ATA, said this case stands up for all truckers and companies that pay tolls.

“We are gratified that the Second Circuit made clear that ATA can move forward with our effort to hold the Thruway Authority accountable,” Pianka told Land Line. “Truckers and other motorists who pay to drive on the New York Thruway are systematically overcharged by $100 million or more every year, with the excess collections diverted to unrelated projects. We look forward to making our case in the next phase of this dispute.”

The next phase involves heading back to lower courts for discovery and testimony.

The New York State Thruway carries Interstates 87, 90, 95, 190 and 287, and tolls are charged on about 570 miles, according to records.

A 1992 law put the 525-mile New York State Canal System, its revenues and expenses under jurisdiction of the Thruway Authority.

The lawsuit plaintiffs say that excessive tolls paid by trucks should not be used to fund the canals.

Whereas the Canal System was used decades ago to carry freight and compete with ground transportation, it is largely a tourist industry today. Meanwhile, highway users continue to pay steeper prices to keep it afloat.

“Maintaining the Canal System comes at steep price,” the ATA complaint reads. “The New York State Thruway Authority, which manages both the Thruway itself and the canals, drastically overcharges commercial truckers for the use of the roads that it administers. The Thruway Authority then siphons off the extra money, not to maintain or improve the roads that the truckers are paying to use, but to support the Canal System as a tourist attraction.”

The Thruway Authority spent $80 million on the canals in 2007 and $100 million in 2012, according to a report by the Office of the New York State Comptroller.

Thruway tolls continue to increase to cover those costs.

“By imposing inflated tolls on truckers, the Thruway Authority violates truckers’ constitutional rights under the Commerce Clause …,” the lawsuit states.

“The unconstitutionally excessive truck-toll rates charged by the Thruway Authority have real and substantial effects on interstate commerce, particularly in the face of the country’s long, slow recovery from our latest recession,” the complaint argues.

The plaintiffs are asking the courts for declaratory and injunctive relief to bar the Thruway Authority from collecting excessive truck tolls. They are also asking for damages, recoupment, restitution, costs, attorneys’ fees and other relief the courts deem proper, according to the document.

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