Court rules New York can use toll revenue for canals

NEW YORK CITY – A federal appeals court has dismissed a class-action lawsuit challenging the New York State Thruway Authority’s use of highway tolls to fund the state’s canal system.

The suit was filed in 2013 by the American Trucking Associations, and the American Bus Association filed a similar suit a year ago arguing that bus tolls used to maintain the canal system are unconstitutional.

The Thruway Authority argued that it was authorized to use truck tolls to pay for canals by Congress.

The tolls in question are charged on the Governor Thomas E. Dewey Thruway system, which runs between New York City, Albany and Buffalo. The Thruway Authority contributes more than $61 million annually, or roughly 10 percent of toll revenue, to maintain the canals, including the Erie Canal, which was once crucial for transporting goods but is now obsolete and mainly a tourist attraction.

The decision by the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that also ultimately rejected ATA’s legal arguments that the 570-mile cross-state thruway should not allocate excess highway toll revenues to support recreational uses.

The court described the canal system as a “recreational byway, drawing pleasure boats, fishing lines, and the occasional canal fan.”

“We conclude that Congress evinced unmistakably clear intent to authorize the Thruway Authority to allocate highway tolls to support the canal system,” the appeals court said. “We also conclude that the District Court had discretion to reach the question of congressional authorization.”

ATA received a favorable decision from the district court in 2016, which ruled that it was unconstitutional for the Thruway Authority to use millions of dollars in toll revenues paid by commercial truckers to maintain the state’s canal system.

The opinion by a U.S. District Court judge for the Southern District of New York determined the Thruway Authority’s diversion of toll revenue from truckers for the canals violates the U.S. Constitution’s Dormant Commerce Clause.

“Obviously, commercial truckers do not use the barge canals; they haul freight on the highway,” Chief District Court Judge Colleen McMahon wrote. “The truckers may wish to enjoy bike paths, hiking trails and museums on a vacation, but they are irrelevant while sitting in the cab of an 18-wheeler.

“The state of New York cannot insulate the Canal System from the vagaries of the political process and taxpayer preferences by imposing the cost of its upkeep on those who drive the New York Thruway in interstate commerce.”

However, before the district court could rule on ATA’s class‐certification, the Thruway Authority discovered information indicating that Congress had indeed authorized it to devote surplus highway toll revenue toward the canal system.

It was unclear how the ruling affects the ABA suit.

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