(CN) - The 2nd Circuit reinstated a class action claiming the New York Thruway Authority unconstitutionally granted an interstate highway toll break to Grand Island residents.
Drivers pay $.75 to cross the Grand Island Bridge, except for residents of Grand Island, who pay as little as $.09 a trip. The bridge along I-190 spans Grand Island, N.Y., a city halfway between Niagara Falls and Buffalo.
In their class action, non-residents argued that the toll scheme violated several provisions of the U.S. Constitution, including the commerce clause, the equal protection clause, and the privileges and immunities clauses of the 14th Amendment.
A federal judge dismissed the complaint for lack of standing, saying the claims didn't fall within the "zone of interests" protected by the cited provisions, because they were too local.
"The true gravamen of plaintiffs' complaint is that the Grand Island toll policy discriminates against New York citizens traversing a bridge within the State," the lower court had explained.
The plaintiffs countered that they were engaged in interstate commerce, because the bridge links them to New Jersey, where they buy goods and services.
But the New York Thruway Authority insisted that because "99.9 percent of New York State residents" and all non-New Yorkers aren't eligible for the reduced rate, the toll break doesn't involve interstate commerce. It added that $.75 is too trivial a fee to give rise to a commerce clause violation.
Judge Cabranes of the Manhattan-based federal appeals court said dismissal wasn't proper at this stage, because the plaintiffs' claims were "plausible."
"NYTA is entitled to charge plaintiffs a reasonable fee for the use of the Grand Island Bridge," Cabranes wrote. "However, it may not impose on users of the Bridge a burden that is not commensurate with the benefit it confers, and it may not discriminate against interstate commerce."
The three-judge panel said the district court needs to closely examine whether the toll fairly represents non-residents' use of the bridge, and whether it discriminates against interstate travelers.
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