Federal judge vacates earlier ruling, decides truck tolls for NY canals are constitutional

By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer | 3/2/2017

A little over six months after a federal judge in New York agreed with the American Trucking Associations that truck toll revenue used for New York canals was unconstitutional, the same judge has vacated that order following an appeal and ruled that the tolls were constitutional all along.

On Feb. 28, Judge Colleen McMahon of the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York sided with the New York State Thruway Authority after initially ruling in favor of ATA in August of last year.

Basically, the judge deemed the entire case a waste of time.

In her decision that was consistent with court documents in the case filled with colorful language, McMahon wrote: 

“In the early years of Saturday Night Live, the late, great Gilda Radner portrayed a character named Emily Litella. Ms. Litella was a concerned citizen who happened to be hard of hearing. Week after week, Ms. Litella showed up on the Weekend Update segment of the show to complain about some outrageous thing she had heard on the news. And week after week, the exasperated anchorman explained to Ms. Litella that she had misunderstood – the news story about parents objecting to ‘violins’ on television was really about the ‘violence’ on television. … Once corrected, both Ms. Litella’s ire and her person deflated visibly, until, looking directly into the camera, she uttered an apology for having wasted everyone’s time. 

“She said, ‘Never mind.’ 

“We have reached the Emily Litella moment in this action.” 

In November 2013, ATA filed a class-action lawsuit against the New York State Thruway Authority, claiming toll revenue used to maintain the canal system violates the Dormant Commerce Clause. Not explicitly in the Constitution, the Dormant Commerce Clause is implied within the Commerce Clause of the Constitution and prohibits “states passing legislation that discriminates against or excessively burdens interstate commerce,” according to the Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School.

According to the lawsuit, the expansion of the Thruway and the dominance of trucking over the years have significantly reduced the importance of the canal system for commerce. Stating that the canal system is mostly used for recreational purposes and tourism, the lawsuit asserts that the state “drastically overcharges commercial truckers” and uses that extra money to maintain what is essentially a tourist attraction. The Thruway Authority spent more than $100 million of toll money on the canals in 2012.

In her Aug. 10 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 scathing 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 revenue is “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.”

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 claimed that arguments of unconstitutionality lack any strength.

In an attempt to preserve the contested ruling in favor of ATA, the association’s attorneys argued “the existence of ISTEA is not a ‘fact’ that plaintiffs had maliciously secreted in a hidden Mayan pyramid, to be ‘discovered’ many years later, Indiana Jones-like, by diligent defense counsel.” Rather, ISTEA was a published law that the Thruway should have discovered earlier and ignorance was no excuse, or defense of the toll collection.

The judge disagreed and ruled in the Thruway’s favor on the appeal, ending the lawsuit.

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