Thursday, March 29, 2018
The Second Circuit ruled that New York's practice of using surplus revenue from highway tolls to fund its canal system did not violate the Dormant Commerce Clause. The ruling means that New York can continue this practice.
The court ruled that Congress specifically approved the practice in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991. That Act authorizes state authorities to collect highway tolls without repaying the federal government (for federal financial aid to construct and improve highways in the first place) so long as it first used those funds for specified purposes under the Act. If so, then a state could use all excess toll revenues "for any purpose for which Federal funds may be obligated by a State under [Title 23]." This includes "historic preservation, rehabilitation and operation of historic transportation buildings, structures, or facilities (including historic railroad facilities and canals)." A separate provision--a "Special Rule"--paralleled this rule and added specific conditions for the New York State Thruway.
The court said that the ISTEA "permitted the Thruway Authority to allocate excess toll revenues (1) to any transportation facilities under the Thruway Authority's jurisdiction or (2) for any project eligible to receive federal assistance under Title 23." According to the court, this "plain language of the ISTEA manifestly contains . . . 'unmistakably clear' evidence of an intent to authorize the Thruway Authority to use excess highway toll revenues for canal purposes."
Because Congress validly authorized this under its Commerce Clause authority, it can't violate the Dormant Commerce Clause.