A lawsuit that claimed tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike were being used illegally to pay for the massive Big Dig highway project was dismissed Thursday by the state's highest court.
The lawsuit claimed the tolls amount to an illegal tax because tolls should only be used to maintain the road on which they were collected. It sought up to three years in toll rebates for potentially tens of thousands of drivers, an amount that was estimated at about $440 million.
But the Supreme Judicial Court found that the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority is lawfully permitted to use toll revenues collected from users of toll roads and tunnels to pay for overhead, maintenance and capital costs associated with non-toll roads, bridges and tunnels. The lawsuit claimed that the turnpike tolls amounted to an illegal tax. The high court disagreed, saying the tolls are fees.
"Where, as here, a public authority manages an integrated system of roadways, bridges, and tunnels, and chooses to impose tolls on only some of the roadways and tunnels in an amount sufficient to support the entire integrated system, its purpose does not shift from expense reimbursement to revenue raising simply because the toll revenues exceed the cost of maintaining only the tolled portions of the integrated system," Justice Ralph Gants wrote for the court in the unanimous ruling.
"Nor must every road, bridge, and tunnel in an integrated system of roadway, bridges, and tunnels be tolled to enable the tolls collected to support the expenses of the entire integrated system without being deemed taxes," he wrote.
The lawsuit alleged that 58 cents of every toll dollar collected on the Massachusetts Turnpike was being used to pay for the Big Dig, a massive project that included demolition of the overhead section of Interstate 93 in Boston and replacement with an underground tunnel, and extension of Interstate 90 to Logan International Airport.
Earlier this week, state transportation officials said the Big Dig's cost has ballooned to nearly $24.3 billion, including interest on borrowing.
Jan Schlichtmann, a Massachusetts lawyer made famous when he was portrayed by actor John Travolta in the 1998 film, "A Civil Action," led a team of lawyers who filed the lawsuit in 2009. Schlichtmann said he is disappointed by the ruling and plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
"They are saying that the tollpayers who had a surplus, it was then turned into just a cash machine — an ATM — to charge the tollpayers for the most expensive boondoggle in the history of public works - the Big Dig," Schlichtmann said.
State Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey said he is pleased that the SJC reaffirmed the Department of Transportation's ability to maintain the metropolitan highway system using toll money.
"These revenues allow us to properly maintain the system as a whole as the drivers and users of the system expect," Davey said.
This program aired on July 12, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.