Updated at 11:29 p.m.
A Virginia federal court judge has dismissed a class action lawsuit over the alleged unconstitutionality of tolls on the Omer L. Hirst - Adelard L. Brault Expressway, better known as the Dulles Toll Road.
The plaintiffs in the case, drivers who use the road on a regular basis, filed a notice of appeal almost immediately after Judge Anthony Trenga, with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, issued his decision (PDF) yesterday.
The drivers allege that the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority exceeded its authority by setting toll rates and then using those funds to pay for Metrorail expansion to Dulles Airport, a project they allege is not directly related to the maintenance of the road. Under these circumstances, they claim, the tolls function as taxes, which the drivers argue can be levied by elected bodies alone.
Trenga wrote that the class members lacked prudential standing, meaning that the claims are “so inextricably bound up” in political and legislative matters in other branches of government that it would be unwise for the court to get involved.
MWAA’s existence and authority stems from political decisions made by Congress and legislative and executive branches in the District, Maryland and Virginia, Trenga wrote. As a result, the class members’ claims are policy issues that should be handled in those forums.
Trenga did reject MWAA’s argument that the class members lacked general standing to file suit, though, writing that regular users of the road who pay tolls could allege an injury from paying what they believed were unconstitutionally-leveraged taxes.
Robert Cynkar of Cuneo Gilbert & LaDuca in Alexandria, Va., said this morning that while he was disappointed, he was not surprised and is ready to challenge the ruling on appeal.
“Frankly, these kinds of cutting-edge constitutional cases, if you look back in history, the party that ultimately wins and makes those new principles of law, loses in the District Court and Court of Appeals,” Cynkar said.
MWAA was represented by Stuart Raphael of Hunton & Williams in McLean, Va., who referred questions to the authority’s general counsel, Phil Sunderland.
“We’re certainly very pleased with the outcome,” Sunderland said. “This is the third go-around of litigation raising essentially the same issues ... We hope with the opinion from Judge Trenga, which was a very thorough analysis of all the issues, that we will now have seen the last of these lawsuits.”
The drivers filed suit (PDF) in April, claiming that the authority’s use of tolls to pay for the Silver Line Metrorail expansion project converted “what is supposed to be a legitimate user fee into a tax.” As an unelected body, they argued, the authority lacked authority under the Virginia Constitution and Commonwealth Transportation Board to levy taxes.
In 2008, the authority entered into an agreement with the Virginia Department of Transportation to take over control of the toll road and the Metrorail expansion project.
In MWAA’s motion to dismiss (PDF), the authority noted that this case is the third such lawsuit aimed at curbing the use of tolls for the Metrorail expansion. A judge in the Circuit Court for the City of Richmond dismissed the first suit, the authority notes, finding that the tolls were not taxes. As in the most recent case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed that the plaintiffs in the second lawsuit lacked prudential standing.
Although Trenga dismissed the suit on the prudential standing issue, he also dismissed the plaintiffs' individual claims, agreeing with the Fourth Circuit that the tolls were not the same as a tax. He also found that MWAA did have legal authority to set the tolls and use them for the Metrorail expansion project.