Truckers ask U.S. Supreme Court to review Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls

The common Class 8 commercial vehicle—a truck or full-size motorcoach—would have to pay $3,169 in tolls to cross the U.S. if all states imposed the rates levied on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, according to a petition asking for a U.S. Supreme Court review.

A trucking industry coalition claims the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) tolls violate the U.S. Constitution and federal laws pertaining to interstate commerce and the right to travel. The Supreme Court is asked to reconcile divergent rulings on such claims from five federal circuit appeals courts.

The petitioners state that Pennsylvania, since 2007, has levied tolls that far exceed the Turnpike’s costs, converting the Pennsylvania Turnpike into a source of $450 million in annual revenue to fund projects throughout the state that have no functional relationship to the Turnpike.

The petition was filed by the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), the National Motorists Association and several truckers and trucking companies.

“This is an issue for motorcoach operators, too,” said John Bailey, chairman of the Pennsylvania Bus Association and president of Bailey Coach in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania.

“The bone of contention that I and a lot of people have is that they are taking money people pay to drive on that toll road and are using it to repair non-turnpike roads and bridges,” he said. “We shouldn’t be robbing the turnpike administration to pay for other projects. It is an extra expense, and we have to pass it along to the customer.”

The claims

“Petitioners allege that the Pennsylvania Turnpike imposes excessive and burdensome tolls in violation of the dormant Commerce Clause,” begins the petition for a writ of certiorari. “Petitioners allege that the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s excessive tolls violate their rights to travel” by deterring travel on the Turnpike.

“PTC is required annually to transfer to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) vast amounts of money (currently $450,000,000 per year). To generate the funds it is required to transfer, PTC sets tolls at levels that it admits exceed the cost of operating and maintaining the Turnpike by as much as 250 to 300 percent.”

Petitioners claim that federal laws allow tolling authorities to receive revenues sufficient to cover debt service on the facilities, a reasonable return on investment for any private portions of the project and any costs needed to maintain and operate the facilities.

“The facts of this case are essentially undisputed… Drivers have been forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in excess tolls annually to support state infrastructure projects unrelated to their use of the Pennsylvania Turnpike,” the petition stated. “Never in the history of the United States has Congress or a court concluded that user fees of this magnitude are constitutionally appropriate.”

The truckers’ petition said some previous court rulings have not addressed the effects on interstate commerce if all states imposed such tolls. The turnpike commission’s 2020 schedule lists $269.60 in tolls for a Class 8 vehicle to travel from the Warrendale Toll Plaza at Exit 30 to Neshaminy Falls at Exit 353 on Interstates 76 and 276.

“If every state along the route imposed a toll on the highways that traverse the nation from San Francisco to Atlantic City at the same amount per mile as the cash toll on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a Class 9 trucker would pay $16,341 for a one-way cross-country trip. The more common Class 8 (4 axle) commercial motor vehicle would pay $3,169. In a family car, an ordinary traveler would pay $510 in tolls alone to drive from coast to coast only once.”

For many trips across Pennsylvania the turnpike is the only reasonable option, Bailey said. When possible, commercial operators do travel on alternate routes. “When we go to New York City we go out Interstate 78 then we catch the New Jersey Turnpike. We save $56 in tolls each way. That’s $112 for a round trip. One day recently we had 10 buses up there.”

The trucker’s petition summarized, “This (Supreme) Court has repeatedly stressed that the practical effect of a state statute ‘must be evaluated not only by considering the consequences of the statute itself, but also by considering… what effect would arise if not one, but many or every, State adopted similar legislation.’

“The Court has long ‘recognized that the nature of our Federal Union and our constitutional concepts of personal liberty unite to require that all citizens be free to travel throughout the length and breadth of our land uninhibited by statutes, rules, or regulations which unreasonably burden or restrict this movement.’”


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