Judge dismisses all but 'illegal tax' portion of lawsuit against Ohio Turnpike

By David Tanner, Land Line senior editor | 8/26/2015

A federal judge dismissed most of the claims brought in a class-action lawsuit that challenges the way the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission spends funds on non-turnpike projects. The one provision that remains, which challenges the constitutionality of a January 2014 toll increase, will go back to a lower court to be decided.

Presiding Judge Dan Aaron Polster dismissed six of the seven claims for relief filed by plaintiff Melissa Ullmo, a turnpike user and taxpayer based in Ohio. Polster’s decision on Tuesday, Aug. 25, came after attorneys for the Turnpike Commission filed a motion for the case to be dismissed.

Ullmo had claimed in the seven-part lawsuit that diverting toll revenue from a Jan. 1, 2014, toll increase to non-turnpike projects amounted to a “politically expedient gimmick designed to avoid increasing taxes of general application.” The lawsuit sought to halt the toll increase and reimburse turnpike users for all money collected since Jan. 1, 2014.

The lawsuit drew attention to the fact that the commission directed $900 million in toll revenue to non-turnpike projects such as the $39 million Opportunity Corridor in Cleveland that featured landscaped boulevards and a bike and pedestrian path.

Ullmo’s lawsuit called for the diversion to be halted, but Judge Poster disagreed. The ruling on Tuesday allows the diversion to continue by asserting that turnpike users still benefit from those projects.

The remaining provision, which has been remanded to the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, challenges that the toll increase itself is a violation of the Ohio Constitution pertaining to taxation.

Specifically, the plaintiff claims that the toll increase is really an illegal tax in disguise.

“Under Ohio law, the Defendant is not authorized to levy taxes,” the remaining claim states. “Accordingly, the Unlawful Tolls are illegal to the extent that they constitute a tax.”

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