New York Thruway: Congress authorized use of truck tolls for canal system

By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer | 2/1/2017

The New York State Thruway Authority has filed a motion to dismiss a complaint filed by the American Trucking Associations, which claims that using truck toll revenue to fund New York canals is unconstitutional. In August 2016, a federal judge ruled in favor of ATA, but the Thruway is arguing that Congressional authority to use the toll nullifies the decision.

On Jan. 26, the Thruway argued that it was authorized to use truck tolls to pay for canals by Congress. Based on that argument, the Thruway is asking the court to vacate the order issued last August.

More specifically, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, or ISTEA, explicitly states how the Thruway can use toll revenue:

“Revenues collected from such tolls, after the date of such request, in excess of revenues needed for debt service and the actual costs of operation and maintenance shall be available for (1) any transportation project eligible for assistance under  title 23, United States Code, or (2) costs associated with transportation facilities under the jurisdiction of such non-Federal party, including debt service and costs related to the construction, reconstruction, restoration, repair, operation and maintenance of such facilities.”

Based on this new bit of information, the Thruway claims that arguments of unconstitutionality lack any strength.

On Aug. 10, 2016, Judge Colleen McMahon of the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York sided with the ATA. In her decision, McMahon acknowledged the canal “has great economic, historic and recreational value for the State of New York.” However, she also noted the canals had “no transportation or other associated value to Plaintiffs.” Based on that analysis, the Thruway violated the Dormant Commerce Clause with its commercial toll rates.

In a bizarre twist in the lawsuit, the Thruway attempted to argue against phrasing in its own brief.

In a interpretation of the lawsuit, McMahon pointed out a phrase used by the Thruway Authority that they themselves tried to argue was too vague: “highway tolls … cover the lion’s share of its responsibilities for the canals” and toll revenues are “the principal means” used to fund the canal system. The Thruway claimed that the phrases “lion’s share” and “principal” were too vague and legally irrelevant. McMahon called that claim “idiotic.”

“I will assume that [the Defendants] are sufficiently literate to have known the meaning of the words they used in their own briefing,” McMahon wrote in the decision, pointing out that “lion’s share” means “most” and “principal” means “foremost, main.”

ATA is seeking monetary damages in the amount of tolls paid since Nov. 14, 2010. In addition to monetary damages, it is also seeking equitable relief in the form of a declaratory judgment and a permanent order that would prevent the collection of similar tolls in the future.

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