Truckers sue the state for increased toll road fees

A group of truck drivers is suing Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb for the increases in toll road fees that took effect last year.

Holcomb announced in September that fees along the 157-mile Indiana Toll Road would increase by 35 percent for commercial trucks and that the state would in turn reap $1 billion to spend on new infrastructure projects.

The higher fees were imposed starting Oct. 5 on Class 3 vehicles and above, which includes most large trucks, trucks with trailers and semitrailers. Passenger vehicles were not affected by the increase.

On Wednesday, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association Inc., Utah-based Chutka Trucking LLC, Indiana truck driver Mark Elrod and Ohio-based B.L. Reever Transport Inc. filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana challenging the constitutionality of the fee hike.

The drivers association, which is based in Missouri, represents 160,000 members throughout all 50 states, including the three other plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Holcomb, along with the Indiana Toll Road Concession Co., Indiana Department of Transportation Commissioner Joe McGuinness, the Indiana Finance Authority and all of its board members, and Indiana Public Finance Director Dan Huge are all named in the lawsuit.

The truck drivers argue that the toll road fee hikes are discriminatory and excessive because the increase only applies to heavier vehicles and because the extra revenue from the fees won’t be spent on improving or maintaining the road the drivers are paying fees to use.

“The toll increase falls exclusively on the types of trucks that are most likely to be engaged in the interstate transport of cargo,” the lawsuit states. “No increase in tolls on other vehicles including automobiles, buses and small trucks that are relatively less likely to be engaged in interstate commerce was imposed.”

As part of its amended agreement with the state that allowed the fee increase, the Indiana Toll Road Concession Co. agreed to make three payments to the state over the next three years—$400 million was paid in October 2018; $300 million will be paid in October 2019; and $300 million will be paid in October 2020.

The funding is going toward expanding broadband access, adding more biking and hiking trails, improving roadways, attracting more direct international flights and accelerating construction on the last leg of the Interstate 69 project.

State Sen. David Niezgodski, D-South Bend, said in a statement that the governor was wrong to raise fees in one part of the state and spend the money elsewhere.

“I am hearing not just from heavy truck drivers, but from people all over northern Indiana, that the governor has overstepped his power," Niezgodski said. "Michiana businesses will be the ones to have to absorb these fees and raise their costs. On top of that, Hoosiers in this area don’t like that these fees are being levied in only one region while then being distributed to other parts of the state."

The truckers argue that by using the extra fee money for projects unrelated to the toll road, the governor is discriminating against interstate commerce. (The amendment agreement between the Indiana Toll Road Concession Co. and the state does require the company to invest an additional $50 million to improve the toll road.)

The lawsuit also says the state is violating the Commerce Clause, which requires user fees, such as the toll road fees, to “reflect a fair approximation of the toll payer’s use of the tolled facilities” and “may not be excessive in relation to costs incurred by the tolling authority in providing such facilities.”

According to the lawsuit, since the increase took effect, the tolls paid by Class 3 and higher vehicles account for 135 percent of what had previously been determined to be that group’s share of operating and maintaining costs.

For Class 3 vehicles, which include larger trucks such as dump trucks, tolls increased from $16.33 to $22.04 for the entire length of the seven-county roadway. For Class 4 vehicles, which include trucks with an attached trailer, the fee rose from $34.04 to $45.96. For Class 5 vehicles, which includes many semitrailers, fees increased from $44.46 to $60.02. The Class 6 hike went from $52.11 to $70.35, and the Class 7 increase from $96.90 to $130.80.

The group would like the state to be required to stop charging the higher rates against large vehicles and is asking for more information from the state and toll road company—a list of all tolls paid since Jan. 9, 2017, the costs associated with operating and maintaining the road, the amounts paid to the state by the toll road company, and the amount of revenue the toll road company has been able to keep.

The truck drivers are also seeking monetary damages that total how much the companies or the drivers association members have paid in increased fees.

The governor’s office said it strongly disagrees with the lawsuit’s assertions.

“We do not believe there is any issue of constitutionality regarding the transaction,” Holcomb's spokeswoman Rachel Hoffmeyer said in an email. “We will vigorously defend the lawsuit.”

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