OOIDA files lawsuit against Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission for excessive tolls

March 19, 2018

Tyson Fisher

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The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and the National Motorists Association have filed a class-action lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission for what they say are excessive toll increases that place an undue burden on interstate commerce. Additionally, the lawsuit claims toll revenue has been diverted to projects unrelated to the turnpike.

In a lawsuit filed on Thursday, March 15, OOIDA is challenging 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 facility.

The lawsuit also claims that PTC toll rates are used to 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.

Four trucking companies and two Pennsylvania residents who drive a private vehicle also are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

In 2007, a public-private partnership was established between PTC and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The agreement is good for 50 years. Per the agreement, PTC would lease Interstate 80 from PennDOT and convert it to a toll road. PTC must provide hundreds of millions of dollars annually to PennDOT under the agreement.

According to the lawsuit, the transfer of I-80 to PTC was never implemented since the Federal Highway Administration never granted its approval to convert the interstate to a toll road. Regardless, the agreement moved on and was eventually implemented.

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

OOIDA points to a 2016 audit that reveals PTC payments have been dedicated solely to nonhighway purposes, including transit. In 2008, PTC announced a large toll rate increase since revenue was going elsewhere. According to a 2008 PTC press 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.” PTC said more than 90 percent of the increase will go to non-Turnpike projects.

“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.”

In regards to the excessive costs, OOIDA points out that since 2011 revenues generated by PTC tolls have totaled to more than 200 percent of the operation and maintenance costs of the Pennsylvania Turnpike System. With toll revenues twice as much as needed, OOIDA argues 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 Todd Spencer, acting president and CEO of OOIDA. “The ongoing, economic drain on unsuspecting turnpike users is the epitome of highway robbery.”

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

“The right to move freely, by automobile, is implicit in the concept of ordered liberty and finds ample support in the Commerce Clause, the Privileges and Immunities Clause, and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” the lawsuit says.

Of the nearly 200 million vehicles that traveled on the turnpike in the fiscal year ending May 31, 2015, more than 86 percent were Class 1 passenger vehicles. However, the lawsuit estimates that about half of the annual toll revenues came from trucks, which represent less than 15 percent of total traffic. Trucks generated approximately $443 million in PTC toll revenue in 2016.

OOIDA and NMA are seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, damages and other relief deemed appropriate. The associations are requesting that any damages awarded be paid by PTC rather than the state.

Tyson Fisher joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson is a lifelong Kansas Citian.