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Truckers Challenge NY Thruway Tolls

MANHATTAN (CN) - The New York State Thruway Authority overcharged truckers for tolls for years, and diverted $1.1 billion of the money to maintain the state's canal system for tourists, truckers claim in a federal class action.

Lead plaintiff American Trucking Associations, which bills itself as the largest trucking industry trade association, claims the Thruway Authority violated its members' rights by spending the $1.1 billion on the Canal System since taking over its management in 1992.

"And the expenditures have been rising," the truckers say, claiming the Thruway Authority "drastically overcharges commercial truckers for the use of the roads that it administers."

The Thruway's 570 miles of roads connecting Northeast states see 271 million vehicles a year, and commercial trucks account for 37 percent of Thruway revenue.

"Over the course of the latter half of the twentieth century, the expansion of the Thruway and the rise of trucking as a dominant method of transport resulted in a dramatic decline in the commercial significance of New York's Canal System, a network of waterways that stretches across upstate New York," the class claims. "Once a vital link between the markets of the East Coast and suppliers in the Midwest, the Canal System is now primarily a recreational space for tourists."

According to the lawsuit, the Thruway spent more than $80 million of toll money on the canals in 2007, and another $100 million in 2012.

"As a tourist attraction, the Canal System is an economic boon to the villages, hamlets and towns that line its 524 miles of waterways," the complaint states. "Estimates suggest that canal-related tourism generates nearly $400 million in revenues yearly for those who live and do business along the canals."

In 2010, drivers of ordinary passenger automobiles paid 47 cents per mile, while trucks are charged up to 93 cents per mile at various points along the route, the plaintiffs say.

The businesses that benefit from the tourism "do not bear the heavy economic burden of maintaining and operating the canals," the group says. "Instead, the Thruway Authority has shifted that burden to commercial truckers - the lifeblood of the American economy - by charging artificially inflated tolls for use of the Thruway and then spending the extra revenues on the Canal System."

The truckers say the inflated tolls increase transport costs, reducing their revenue and "compelling them to find different, cheaper rates through other states, and causing them to lose business to other modes of transport."

The higher trucker tolls also harm consumers by raising prices, the truckers say.

"The Thruway Authority's toll regime is thus not simply wreaking havoc on truckers' bottom lines; it is interfering with the efficient operation of the national economy and encouraging economic Balkanization at a time when we as a nation can least afford these extra burdens on the free flow of commerce," the plaintiffs say.

They seek declaratory judgment that the toll rates violate the Commerce Clause and the Privileges and Immunities Clauses of Article IV, and the 14th Amendment.

They also seek restitution, disgorgement, damages and costs.

The 24-page complaint includes another 20 pages of exhibits.

The class is defined as people and motor carriers who have paid tolls on the system since Nov. 14, 2010.

The truckers are represented by Andrew Tauber with Mayer Brown, of Washington, D.C.

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