OOIDA turns Pennsylvania governor's words against him in toll lawsuit

By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer | 12/3/2018

As the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association’s lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission continues, new information is surfacing. OOIDA recently filed new exhibits in the toll lawsuit that include recent comments by Gov. Tom Wolf.

On Nov. 29, OOIDA filed new supplemental information in support of its argument that excessive tolls in Pennsylvania are unconstitutional. In June, OOIDA motioned for partial summary judgment, stating that “annual costly toll increases place an undue burden on Pennsylvanians” and that the tolls also affect interstate commerce. Gov. Wolf and co-defendant Leslie Richards, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, objected to that claim.

However, on Nov. 27, Wolf made contradicting statements during an interview with KDKA-AM. According to court documents, Wolf made the following statements:

  • “People using the turnpike are paying too much.”
  • “The turnpike really is driving business away.”
  • “(Act 44) just turned out to be too burdensome for the turnpike, and obviously for the people who use the turnpike.”


As to the first quote regarding paying too much, OOIDA suggests that statement supports its claim that the turnpike tolls are excessive. The other two quotes support OOIDA’s claim that the tolls unduly burden interstate commerce and deter travel on the turnpike.

Subsequently, OOIDA filed those statements in its toll lawsuit, stating that the “statements are admissible as the statement of a party opponent to establish [OOIDA’s] position.”

Gov. Wolf also said that Act 44 “is transferring money into highways, construction outside the turnpike, which is the idea, but it’s just too expensive for the turnpike and turnpike customers.” OOIDA claims this plays into their argument that funds are being diverted to unrelated projects.

“Gov. Wolf’s statements in a recorded interview concerning the turnpike and Act 44 are admissible evidence that support the allegations in plaintiffs’ complaint, and undoubtedly overcome Governor Wolf’s and Secretary Richards’ hearsay objections to one portion of the statement,” OOIDA stated in its court filing.

OOIDA v Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission
In a lawsuit filed on March 15, OOIDA challenged the constitutionality of the imposition of excessive tolls by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. OOIDA claims that tolls, or “user fees,” become an undue burden on commerce once the amount is greater than a fair approximation of the value of the use of the toll road.

The toll lawsuit also claims that the turnpike commission tolls pay for state projects that have nothing to do with the turnpike, including operations, maintenance or improvements. OOIDA is evoking the Commerce Clause in its case.

In 2007, a public-private partnership was established between the turnpike commission and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The agreement lasts for 50 years.

Legislation required the commission to make payments to PennDOT in the amounts of $750 million in fiscal year 2007-08, $850 million in 2008-09 and $900 million in 2009-10. From 2011 until 2022, the payments are reduced to $450 million a year. Payments drop to $50 million from 2023 until the end of the agreement in 2057. In total, the turnpike commission will pay PennDOT $9.65 billion, with nearly $6 billion of that already paid.

OOIDA points to a 2016 audit that reveals turnpike commission payments have been dedicated solely to non-highway purposes, including transit. In 2008, the turnpike commission announced a large toll rate increase because revenue was going elsewhere. According to a 2008 turnpike news release, the 2009 increase “will largely be used by PennDOT to help finance off-Turnpike road and bridge projects and the state’s 74 mass-transit operations.” The turnpike commission said more than 90 percent of the increase will go to projects that don’t involve the turnpike.

“If those programs have value, however, they should be paid for by taxpayers,” the lawsuit states. “Funding these projects with toll receipts violates constitutional protections guaranteed to users of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.”

OOIDA says that since 2011, revenue generated by turnpike tolls have totaled more than 200 percent of the operation and maintenance costs of the Pennsylvania Turnpike System. With toll revenues twice as much as needed, OOIDA contends that the tolls are being used as a revenue-generating machine for PennDOT to use for unrelated projects.

“Truckers and motorists are not ATMs to fund everything under the sun,” said OOIDA President and CEO Todd Spencer. “The ongoing, economic drain on unsuspecting turnpike users is the epitome of highway robbery.”

A 2016 performance audit of the commission by Pennsylvania’s auditor general found that “annual costly toll increases place an undue burden on Pennsylvanians.” The audit called toll increases “unsustainable” and said eventually “the average turnpike traveler will be deterred by the increased cost and seek alternative toll-free routes.”

 

 

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