The House last week approved a bill that would allow state transportation departments and other tolling entities to offer discounted tolls to residents and nearby commuters, as individuals challenge the discounts in at least three lawsuits against tolling agencies.
The bill, which was introduced a year ago by Rep. Michael McMahon, is similar to one introduced in the Senate last November by fellow New York Democrat Sen. Charles Schumer. Both the McMahon and Schumer bills are now pending before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
McMahon’s bill was supported by House Transportation Committee chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., who said on the House floor that it “reinforces the right of communities to reduce the extreme toll burdens borne by captive toll-payers.”
The legislation would explicitly give state and local governments the power to reduce fares, tolls, or other user fees for local residents or commuters.
These powers also would apply to governmental agencies and transportation authorities that operate or manage roads, bridges, ferries, buses, rail, or other transportation facilities.
“Due to specific isolating geographic factors … residents in, and commuters to, certain localities endure a disproportionate toll burden,” McMahon said. “These people are captive toll-payers.”
McMahon’s district includes Staten Island, which he called “the highest tolled county in the United States.”
The Verrazano Bridge connecting Staten Island and Brooklyn is scheduled for a fare increase to $12 from $11, and other nearby bridges cost $8 to cross, he said.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have offered some toll discounts to residents, as have tolling authorities in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and elsewhere in New York.
But those discounts have been challenged by lawsuits in recent years by individuals who are not eligible for the discounts.
One lawsuit was filed in a federal court in Providence against the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority by Isabel Cohen, a resident of Fairfield County, Conn.
Another suit was filed in Boston against the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, the Massachusetts Port Authority, and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation by Carol Surprenant, a resident of Washington County, R.I.
Both of those lawsuits allege that higher toll rates for out-of-state or out-of-town residents violate the Constitution’s dormant commerce clause, which suggests that Congress alone can erect barriers to interstate trade.
The lawsuits ask for damages equal to the total difference between the discount fares and the fares paid by drivers who are not eligible for the discounts.
Both MassPort and the Turnpike Authority are arguing that they have not violated the commerce clause because Surprenant could not plausibly show that interstate commerce was implicated by her paying a higher toll on an intrastate bridge that was near toll-free options, according to court documents.
The Rhode Island authority also has denied allegations that its toll rates violate the commerce clause, documents said.
The lawsuits are still undecided, according to court documents.
McMahon has called his legislation a response to a decision last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that toll discounts for New York residents may violate the commerce clause. The decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed in 2006 by Robert Selevan of Nassau County, N.Y., Anne Rubin of Ontario, Canada, and others against the New York Thruway Authority.
The legislation would not allow toll authorities to offer preferential treatment to state residents at the expense of other states, McMahon noted, adding that those discounts would probably be found unconstitutional by the courts.