Lawsuit Argues MWAA Can't Tax Dulles Toll Road Commuters | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

WAMU 88.5 : Morning Edition

Filed Under:

Lawsuit Argues MWAA Can't Tax Dulles Toll Road Commuters

Play associated audio
MWAA is facing a class action lawsuit from plaintiffs who argue that they are illegally "taxing" Dulles Toll Road commuters with toll increases to pay for the Silver line project to Dulles Airport. 
Rebecca Cooper
MWAA is facing a class action lawsuit from plaintiffs who argue that they are illegally "taxing" Dulles Toll Road commuters with toll increases to pay for the Silver line project to Dulles Airport. 

The agency that's running the Silver line rail project to Dulles Airport is holding public hearings on its plan to dramatically raise tolls on the Dulles Toll Road to pay for the project. But a Federal Court of Appeals will consider a lawsuit that could derail the project.

The class action suit argues the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority does not have the authority to raise tolls on drivers to pay for trains. Only an elected legislature can raise tolls in order to pay for something other than the maintenance and operation of the Dulles Toll Road itself, the suit claims. 

"A toll is a user fee. That means you are using something and you have to pay for the service," says attorney Robert Cynkar, who will argue the case before a federal appellate court in October. "A tax is anything above that where money is being taken from you to raise revenue for another project."

The lawsuit doesn't address whether the Silver line should be built. It's focused only on whether the airports authority has authority to raise taxes, which is how Cynkar characterizes the toll hikes. 

Under the Virginia constitution, elected officials are the only people who can vote to raise taxes. Is a higher toll really a tax To the drivers who will be paying them starting in January, the answer might be yes, according to Cynkar.

"The issue of whether the Metro rail is a good idea, whether it makes sense for the economy, how much it should cost and all that, are different issues," Cynkar says. "We just say that if you are going to build this thing and you need to get revenue for it, you have to do it the constitutional way."

A lower court did dismissed the case in July. According to Don Williamson, a professor of taxation at the Kogod School of Business at American University, the toll increases might legally be considered taxes — but that doesn't necessarily mean the airports authority is in the wrong.

"The public as a whole could interpret any collection of revenue for any purpose to be a form of tax that they are paying to the government," Williamson says. "And it becomes merely a technicality whether we call that collection a tax or a user fee." 

For its part, the airports authority "continues to believe the appeal lacks merit, and we will respond appropriately in court," a spokesman said in a statement. MWAA filed a response to the original suit in April. But the appeals court will have room to draw a different conclusion, Williamson says.

"Indeed this is a legal issue and not a factual issue so the circuit court of appeals has more ability to interpret the law differently … and disagree with the district court," he says.

The plaintiffs Cynkar represents are an American University law professor — disclosure: WAMU 88.5 is licensed to American University —  and a northern Virginia resident who commutes on the Dulles Toll Road every day. 

NPR

Diversity Sells — But Hollywood Remains Overwhelmingly White, Male

Women and minorities continue to be under-represented on TV and in film, both behind and in front of the camera, according to a new study — even though diverse films and shows make more money.
NPR

Italian Cheese Lovers Find Their Bovine Match Through Adopt A Cow

The cheeses of the Italian Alps are prized for their flavor. But the tradition of cheese-making here is dying off. Now remaining farmers are banding together around an unusual adoption program.
NPR

Is The Battle Won And Done For Those Who Fought For Net Neutrality?

In a 3-2 vote on Feb. 26, the FCC approved new rules, regulating broadband internet as a public utility. NPR's Arun Rath speaks with Mat Honan, San Francisco bureau chief for BuzzFeed News, about the political implications of the vote.
NPR

A Neuroscientist Weighs In: Why Do We Disagree On The Color Of The Dress?

Robert Siegel speaks with Dr. Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist at Wellesley College, about the dress that has the whole Internet asking: What color is it?

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.