MWAA Successfully Defeats Class Action Plaintiffs in Effort to Limit Use of Toll Road User Fees for Airport Metrorail Expansion

 

In a federal trial court ruling issued by Judge Anthony Trenga of the Eastern District of Virginia on July 7, 2011, plaintiffs failed in an attempted challenge of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s (“MWAA”) assessment and use of user fees collected from persons using the Dulles Toll Road, in part, to generate funds to cover the costs associated with the construction of a metrorail line extending to Dulles Airport. The named plaintiffs in that case, John B. Carr and John W. Grisby, both Virginia residents, challenged the airport authority’s collection of tolls on the basis that they were excessive, constituted a “tax” and that the “tax” was assessed by MWAA, which, as an unelected body, did not have the authority under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments and under the Republican Form of Government guarantee under Article IV, Section 4 of the United States Constitution.  In addition, the plaintiffs, who filed their complaint on behalf of all drivers who used the toll road in Virginia since 2005, challenged MWAA’s authority under a provision of the Virginia state Constitution.

Plaintiffs filed their complaint on May 5, 2011, and MWAA subsequently filed a Motion to Dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim.  A hearing was held on May 26, 2011, and the court took the motion under advisement.

The court found that all of the claims raised by the plaintiffs were without merit and dismissed the complaint with prejudice. See the Order dismissing the case.

Several important rulings in this case are worth highlighting.  First, the court found that although the plaintiffs in this case were able to show that they had suffered an injury, that there was a causal connection between the injury and the increased tolls implemented by MWAA, and that the Court could fashion a remedy if it found the plaintiffs were entitled to relief, nevertheless they did not have standing to sue under a doctrine of “prudential standing” under the facts of the case.  Under that doctrine, courts do not exercise jurisdiction over a ‘generalized grievance’ shared with a large class of citizens more appropriately dealt with by the representative branches of government from a policy perspective, rather than from a judicial perspective.  In this case, the court reasoned that because MWAA’s authority derives from political processes involving multiple jurisdictions, whose legislatures were empowered to address such issues, the court lacked prudential standing to overturn their policy determinations.

A second important determination in this case was that MWAA had broad federal and state legislative authority arising from a resulting Compact that enabled it to “fix, revise, charge, and collect rates, fees, rental and other charges for the use of airports.”  In connection with that determination, the court also ruled that the legislation delegating authority to MWAA was not an unlawful delegation of authority, as the plaintiffs alleged, and thus did not violate any right of due process under the federal constitution.

Most importantly, the court ruled that the plaintiffs’ assertion that the tolls constituted a “tax” rather than a “user fee” was rejected.  The court pointed out that the “Plaintiffs’ decision to use the Toll Road is optional, not compulsory; the toll collected is not used for unrelated general purposes, but rather for transportation improvements within the same Right-of-way; the United States Secretary of Transportation certified that MWAA’s operation of the Toll Road was a valid “Airport Purpose” and that MWAA could properly use Toll Road revenue to pay for the Metrorail project under the Federal Lease.”  The court further observed that a Virginia state court had already ruled that MWAA’s imposition of the toll was not a tax under Virginia law in a 2008 decision.

Congratulations to MWAA’s General Counsel, Phil Sunderland, and the legal team associated with this important victory!