Updated: 8:43 p.m. EST
A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit over Pennsylvania Turnpike toll increases to help fund the state’s transit agencies, saying Thursday that a truckers’ organization didn’t show the scheme violates constitutional protections over commerce and travel between states.
The 56-page ruling by U.S. District Judge Yvette Kane elicited a sign of relief from a number of quarters in Pennsylvania state government, as well as from transit agencies whose payments had been held up during the lawsuit.
The lawsuit had also asked the court to bar the turnpike commission from using tolls to pay off a massive debt stemming from the payments it is required to make under a 2007 state law designed to pump more money into Pennsylvania’s highways and public transit systems.
The lead plaintiff, the Missouri-based Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said it will appeal.
The organization had argued that the tolls, as user fees, far exceed the value of using the turnpike, far exceed the costs to operate it and support causes with “no functional relationship to the operation, maintenance or improvement of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.”
But Kane said he agreed with the turnpike commission and Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration that the tolls are charged equally to in-state and out-of-state drivers, and do not unfairly burden commerce between states.
Kane also wrote that turnpike tolls do not necessarily prevent someone from finding toll-free routes through Pennsylvania.
The annual payments are $450 million a year, and are scheduled to drop to $50 million in 2022.
To make the payments, the turnpike commission has ordered 11 straight annual toll increases.
In 2008, before the annual toll increases began, the most-common cash rate for passenger vehicles was 75 cents, according to the turnpike commission. Now, it is three times as much, or $2.30. Back then, the 359-mile cross-state toll from Ohio to New Jersey for a passenger vehicle was $21.25. Now it is $58.70 in cash, and $41.70 for E-ZPass users.
More than half of the turnpike commission’s annual revenue of $1.2 billion now goes to debt payments and it is now shouldering $11.8 billion in debt.
About half of its debt is attributable to the more than $6 billion that the turnpike commission has sent to the state Department of Transportation under a 2007 state law designed to pump more money into Pennsylvania’s highways and public transit systems.
Wolf’s transportation secretary, Leslie Richards, told lawmakers in February that it would be “catastrophic” to have to pay back the $6 billion.
The turnpike commission had suspended its payments to PennDOT while Kane considered the lawsuit, forcing transit agencies to tap capital program cash to cover operating costs. On Thursday, it said it planned to make up the missed installments — a total of $337.5 million — by the end of 2019.