Turnpike-Toll Class Action Pulls Into Third Circuit

PHILADELPHIA (CN) — Fuming over tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike that rake in 300% of operation costs, a truck company urged the Third Circuit on Tuesday to revive its $6 billion class action.

Though the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association challenges the toll as excessive, and an impermissible burden on the constitutional right to travel, the argument hinges on establishing the tolls as a user fee. 

At oral arguments this morning, U.S. Circuit Judge Cheryl Ann Krause pushed back on this. “Why isn’t a toll simply just a type of tax,” asked Krause, one of three-members of a panel that will decide whether to reverse a decision dismissing the suit.

Paul Cullen Sr., who represents the truck driver group, said in reply that any the toll must be a user fee because the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission puts those toll dollars toward maintenance and operation.

“The commission has no authority to have anything to do with a tax,” Cullen added. “Ergo a toll is not a tax. 

Opposing counsel Robert Byer meanwhile called it a distinction without a difference since the commission has the authority under Act 44 to raise tolls. 

Under state law, Act 44 authorizes the commission to give $450 million annually to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation through the year 2022 for projects such as public transit, highways and bridges. 

U.S. Circuit Judge Patty Shwartz questioned Byer on where the toll money goes if not to the turnpike.

Byer assured the judges the money was used for the good of the turnpike and its riders, such as maintaining other highways to allow for a better traffic flow on the turnpike. 

“All money is being used for transportation purposes one way or another,” said Byer of the law firm Duane Morris. 

A Pennsylvania federal judge dismissed the suit in April, concluding that the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission had authority under state law to raise tolls to generate funds for services within the state.

Cullen urged the three-judge panel for a reversal, arguing that the price of tolls have been on the rise every year for the last 11 years, affecting anyone who uses the 359-mile road. 

“The whole operation of the turnpike is vital link,” said Cullen. 

Pennsylvania’s Turnpike Commission is $11 billion in debt. Governor Tom Wolf and Department of Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards were also named in the suit and were represented Tuesday by Bruce Merenstein of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis law firm.

The panel was round out by U.S. Circuit Judge Julio Fuentes.

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