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ATA says I-81 truck-focused tolls unlawful

By MELINDA WILLIAMS

melinda@southwesttimes.com

Paying for I-81 improvements by focusing toll fees on commercial vehicles is unconstitutional, according to American Trucking Association (ATA).

In a recent letter to Gov. Ralph Northam, ATA legal counsel Jennifer Hall says funding proposals contained in a Commonwealth Transportation Board I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan presented to Virginia General Assembly “would not only be poor public policy, but would raise serious legal issues.” As such, the group suggests the state could face a legal challenge if the funding option is approved.

The organization contends each of the four tolling options proposed in the plan unconstitutionally discriminate interstate commerce by favoring in-state motorists at the expense of out-of-state.

In particular, the letter to Northam focuses on the state’s favored proposal, which would toll all vehicles, but issue an annual pass to automobiles. According to ATA, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that transportation user fees are permissible only if they are based on a fair approximation of use, are not excessive in relation to the benefits it provides, and if it doesn’t discriminate against interstate commerce.

“By allowing automobiles the opportunity to pay a one-time fee for unlimited travel over the course of the year, but to deny that flat-rate opportunity to trucks, means that the proposal is not ‘based on some fair approximation of use,’” ATA states. Similarly, “if a particular one-time payment is the appropriate price for a passenger car no matter how many trips it takes in a given year, it is by the same token excessive for trucks to be required to pay separately for each trip.”

ATA says such a tolling method favors noncommercial traffic over commercial traffic and, therefore, is not permissible under the U.S. Constitution.

“We encourage you and the Assembly to think carefully about these issues before Virginia takes any further steps in the direction it appears to be heading, and to bear in mind that the auto-only annual pass option will be vulnerable to a legal challenge if it moves forward,” Hall concludes.

Copiers of the letter were sent to the General Assembly and Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine.

ATA is a member of the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates (ATFI), which also is pushing back against Virginia’s proposed funding methods for I-81 improvements. ATA and ATFI agree the interstate needs improvements, but neither supports the funding methods proposed.

“Virginia has looked at tolling I-81 before and concluded that tolls on existing interstates are bad for motorists, bad for the economy and wildly unpopular,” says ATFI spokeswoman Stephanie Kane. “Now Virginia policymakers are doubling down on a bad policy idea that is expensive, inefficient and inequitable — and may doom the Commonwealth to a costly lawsuit that adds years onto the timeline to improve I-81.”

She points out two lawsuits have been filed in the past six months challenging the constitutionality of highway tolls: one in Rhode Island and the other in Indiana.

“Governor Northam and the General Assembly should abandon the call for risky new state tolling pilots and instead focus on real solutions that improve our surface infrastructure and citizens will support,” Kane said.

ATFI has launched a “Keep Tolls Off I-81” campaign, with a website (www.keeptollsoff81.com) that allows those in opposition to toll proposals to sign a petition. Kane says Virginia residents sent more than 2,400 letters of opposition to Northam and state legislators in the first six days of the website’s launch.

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