A ditch too far

Toll diversion — theft if you don’t want to be polite — has been popular in recent decades. Tolls in Western Massachusetts funded the Big Dig in Boston, tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike pay for mass transit in Philadelphia, and tolls on the New York Thruway pay for canals.

Canals?

Fed-up truckers struck back at that one. Not “Convoy”-style, but in court.

Courts have been generous allowing states to set fees for driving. A collection of old cases is found in the 1972 Supreme Court decision Evansville-Vanderburgh Airport v. Delta Airlines. Most cases upheld fees to make drivers pay for the roads they used.

Government can go a little farther. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has been allowed to force drivers to subsidize trains on the grounds that trains take traffic off highway bridges. That is a weak excuse, but at least there is some connection. Toll diversion was upheld in Massachusetts because the subsidizing and subsidized roads are connected.

Not far past that is the limit to how far states you can dig into your pockets. Under Supreme Court precedent a transportation fee is permissible if it

  1. “is based on some fair approximation of use of the facilities,”
  2. “is not excessive in relation to the benefits conferred, and”
  3. “does not discriminate against interstate commerce.”

Truckers filed a class action alleging unconstitutional discrimination against interstate commerce, and last week claimed victory. AASHTO also reported on the case.

Railroads and highways killed canals. Canals can not strike back from the grave.

We could hope this will deter future toll theft, but the news has not been so good in another case in the same district. The Port Authority has been winning a challenge against toll increases by simultaneously hiding information about its budgeting process and demanding that the lawsuit be based on a detailed analysis of its budgeting process.

If you notice the occasional story about a truck with a license plate that flips up to hide its identity, that’s a trucker trying to avoid paying $100 to drive into New York City. That toll pays for new World Trade Center, subsidized trains, and the Port Authority’s bloated payroll.

It looks like that toll will be around for a while.

Think a transport strike would change their mind? No deliveries to New York City or Long Island until the tolls come down?

Maybe not. The people who set tolls would fly away in private jets before ordinary people could gather their pitchforks.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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