In­crease tak­ing a big toll on truck­ers

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Ed Blaz­ina For The As­so­ci­ated Press

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.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

Ve­hi­cles ap­proach the toll booths at the Penn­syl­va­nia Turn­pike en­trance on Route 115 in Bear Creek, Luzerne County.

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