Increase taking a big toll on truckers
The decision in a federal case in New York state has thrown a new element into the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s attempt to get out from under a $450 million annual payment to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for public transit: The payments may not be legal.
In a case filed by the American Trucking Associations, the court ruled Aug. 10 that the New York Thruway Authority can’t use tolls charged to interstate truckers to support the state’s canal system because truckers don’t benefit from the canal. As a result, the trucking group says it will review similar situations in other states that use highway tolls “like a piggy bank” to fund other items.
That could include Pennsylvania, where the turnpike commission is required to use tolls from the turnpike to pay $450 million a year to PennDOT to fund public transit in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The turnpike has raised tolls for nine years and borrowed money annually, partially to make the PennDOT payment.
“We certainly see the decision as a warning shot to any jurisdiction that tries to use tolls from interstate truckers as a kind of piggy bank,” said Rich Pianka, acting general counsel for the trucking group. “We will be aggressively looking at these situations across the country to see what other action we might take.”
The court decision comes at a time when turnpike officials have asked the state Legislature to reconsider the annual payment to PennDOT.
The agency pays about $600 million of its $980 million annual budget in debt service, a financial model that it claims isn’t sustainable. As a result, the agency is reviewing all of its capital projects to determine which ones are needed and affordable. That report is expected next month.
In the New York case, the truckers challenged a 1992 state law that transferred financial responsibility for the state canal system and recreational facilities around them from the state to the thruway authority. Since that time, the authority has used more than $1.1 billion to pay for the canal system, or about 9 to 14 percent of the thruway’s toll collections.
The association argued that requiring truckers to pay for canal upkeep was a violation of the federal “dormant commerce clause” that prevents states from interfering with interstate commerce. By charging tolls used for something other than the upkeep of roads, the thruway was violating federal law, the truckers said.
U.S. District Court Judge Colleen McMahon agreed.
“The record is replete with evidence that millions of toll dollars are being used each year — over a billion dollars in the last two decades — in order to maintain the canal system and its park and recreation lands,” she wrote. “While maintaining the canal system is salutary and of great value to the people of the State of New York, it has absolutely nothing to do with either public safety on the thruway or the construction and maintenance of the roads, bridges and rest stops — things that are of benefit to commercial haulers.”
McMahon said there was “not a scintilla of evidence” that the commercial trucking industry received anything as a result of paying tolls that have been used for the canal system. The truckers are going to seek reimbursement for three years’ worth of tolls, Pianka said, but it hasn’t determined how much money that should be or how it will be returned to truckers.
The case was filed in 2010, and funding for the canal system was shifted to the New York Power Authority as part of the new state budget approved in April.
Pianka said the association hasn’t decided which other payments to challenge across the country and he wasn’t completely familiar with the turnpike payment to PennDOT. In each case, he said, the association will look at whether truckers receive any direct benefit when tolls are used for projects other than roads and bridges.
Turnpike officials couldn’t be reached for comment on the New York case.
The turnpike’s obligation to PennDOT was the result of then-Gov. Ed Rendell’s
attempts to generate additional funding for transportation, including roads, bridges and public transit.
In 2007, the Legislature passed a bill requiring the commission to pay PennDOT $800 million a year, with the revenue to be generated from tolling on Interstate 80. When federal officials refused tolling on I-80, the payment was reduced to $450 million. Two years ago, the payment was earmarked for transit and was set to be reduced to $50 million annually in 2023.
Now, commission Chairman Sean Logan wants the Legislature to eliminate that payment even sooner so the agency can make improvements to its own system, which has some roads and bridges that haven’t been upgraded since the turnpike system was built 75 years ago.
At a hearing in Pittsburgh last week, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development told a state House Appropriations Committee to be careful to identify another source of transit revenue before it eliminates the turnpike payment. Ken Zapinski, the conference’s senior vice president for energy and infrastructure, called it “not workable” for transit agencies if no replacement funding source is found.
After the hearing, Appropriations Chairman William Adolph, R-165, of Springfield, said he is sympathetic with the turnpike’s financial difficulties but eliminating the payment would be “a matter of getting the votes to do it.” Adolph said he wasn’t aware of the possible legal challenge to the turnpike payment, but he said he wasn’t surprised because the provision “has been a problem since we passed it.”
Vehicles approach the toll booths at the Pennsylvania Turnpike entrance on Route 115 in Bear Creek, Luzerne County.