The Turnpike Commission ruling

The Turnpike Commission ruling

At first blush, it’s almost legally incongruous to think that a federal judge could dismiss a lawsuit by a truckers’ and a motorists’ group against the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission over ever-rising tolls on the turnpike.

After all, federal rules are clear – tolls collected on interstate highways can be used only to maintain and/or upgrade said highways.

The Turnpike Commission, by legislative mandate, has been for years transferring hundreds of millions of dollars to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, a separate agency, to prop up other highway and mass-transit projects around the commonwealth.

In the process, the Turnpike Commission has been forced to borrow to cover those transfers. And that practice has played no small role in the commission being nearly $12 billion – billion with a “b” – in debt. Which has led to hefty toll increases every year, which has led to a notable decline in commercial traffic on the turnpike.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association Inc. and the National Motorists Association sued. It sought up to $6 billion in tolls illegally collected since 2007.

The toll transfer scheme was hatched when state officials sought federal permission to toll Interstate 80, primarily as a way to better fund mass transit. The feds put the kibosh on that plan, noting that collected tolls only can be used on the roads from which the tolls were collected.

But that didn’t stop a nose-thumbing Legislature from still mandating that the Turnpike Commission fork over millions. Never mind that the practice has put the commission on a steady road to insolvency.

Thursday last, and based on a motion from the Turnpike Commission and state officials, the judge dismissed the lawsuit. They argued that a loss of those subsidies would cause irrevocable harm to other highways projects and mass transit.

And U.S. District Judge Yvette Kane acquiesced to the gloom, despair and agony-on-we crowd – and, by proxy, legislative reprobates – by dismissing the lawsuit.

Which should be considered akin to dropping charges against a bank robber because the robber claims he won’t be able to pay his bills if forced to return the money.

As the Pennsylvania Capital-Star reported it, the judge “wrote that the plaintiffs did not prove the Turnpike Commission is violating the Constitution’s commerce clause and the protected right to travel by increasing tolls, in part, to make $450 million yearly payments to the state Department of Transportation.”

The plaintiffs say they will appeal. Perhaps a federal appeals court will reinstate the rule of law instead of siding with the government’s sliding scale of public policy propriety.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).