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ALBANY – The nation’s largest trucking trade group is suing to end New York Thruway drivers paying to operate the state’s canal system.

The American Trucking Association is asking a federal court in Manhattan to halt the practice that has seen more than $1.2 billion worth of Thruway toll revenues over two decades diverted to pay for the Erie Canal and other waterways around upstate that make up the New York canal system. Critics call it a budget gimmick

New York is violating the federal constitution’s interest commerce clause protections by charging excessive Thruway tolls to pay for the operations of the canal system, according to Richard Pianka, deputy general counsel at the Virginia-based trucking group.

The class action lawsuit on behalf of all truckers seeks to not only halt the Thruway from using toll money to operate the canals, but requests monetary damages for the “illegal tolls" collected dating from Nov. 14, 2010. The exact amount being sought is not detailed in the 45-page legal filing.

In 2012, Thruway drivers saw $100 million of their toll money go to pay for the canal system’s operations. Boaters using the canals, meanwhile, paid only about $2 million in user fees to travel along its waterways and through its lock system. The lawsuit said that truckers should not be paying for a canal system that is believed to be worth $400 million a year in tourism business to communities that dot the waterways.

“The unconstitutionally excessive truck-toll rates charged by the Thruway Authority have real and substantial effects on interstate commerce, particularly in the face of the country’s long, slow recovery from our last recession,’’ the lawsuit states. Everything from consumer goods to cost of businesses that ship products are affected by the tolls used to pay canal operations, it adds.

The lawsuit’s plaintiffs include the 30,000-member truck association, as well as individual trucking companies, including firms in Ontario and Ulster counties and Pennsylvania.

The trucking group is targeting New York as the poster child of a growing practice by states to use highway toll money to pay for other expenses normally financed by a state’s general fund. In the case of New York, the canals, as well as two toll-free highways downstate, were loaded onto the Thruway’s ledgers in the early 1990s by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo as a cost-savings step during a state government fiscal crisis. One of the downstate highways has since gone back under the responsibility of the state Department of Transportation.

“We’re concerned about what the Thruway is doing with its toll revenues and we’re concerned in general about states around the country looking at tolls as a piggybank to avoid what should be admittedly difficult internal spending and revenue decisions,’’ Pianka said in an interview this afternoon.

The practice of having Thruway users pay for non-Thruway expenses has long been a source of criticism by fiscal watchdogs. Now, though, the trucking industry says it has a good case, based on other court decisions, with its claim that Thruway users engaged in interstate commerce are paying excessive tolls to pay for something they are not using.

“The tolls are not calculated to correspond to the facility you are paying to access. They’re calculated to pay for that plus this entirely unrelated tourism and recreation system,’’ Pianka said.

Boaters on the canal system for years had free access to the waterways. Now, a seasonal pass can be gotten for as little as $25 to go through the lock systems, an amount that falls far short of the operational costs of the 524-mile canal system.

“During these times of underfunding highway infrastructure, we cannot afford to have tolling authorities take the money users pay for maintenance and upkeep of the roadways and use it for recreational or other unrelated purposes,” said Bill Graves, president and chief executive officer of the trucking association. “When truckers pay for access to the Thruway, tens of millions of dollars of their toll payments go to the steep costs of the canal system, which they derive no benefit from.”

The canal system has been a subsidiary of the Thruway Authority since 1992 and has had annual costs exceeding $100 million.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Thruway officials did not want to comment because they have not yet seen the lawsuit.

email: tprecious@buffnews.com