- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 24, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - Fare discounts offered to Staten Island residents and others for some New York City bridge crossings are constitutional, a federal appeals court said Wednesday, rejecting challenges from residents in four states who complained the practice was discriminatory.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan rejected claims by motorists in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut who said offering discounts to a select group of local residents violated their constitutional right to travel.

The discounted tolls let Staten Island residents with E-ZPass electronic toll debit system pay a reduced fare on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge while certain residents of the New York City communities of Rockaway Peninsula and Broad Channel receive discounts to cross the Marine Parkway and Cross Bay Bridges.

For Staten Island residents, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is the only direct connection for vehicles to the rest of New York City.

A three-judge 2nd Circuit panel ruled after plaintiffs in a 2006 lawsuit challenged an October 2013 ruling by a lower-court judge that found in favor of the defendants: the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

In 2012, about 2.6 billion people traveled over the MTA’s mammoth transportation network, which includes city buses, subway trains, the Long Island Rail Road, the Metro-North Railroad and nine toll bridges and tunnels within New York City.

The plaintiffs said they were relying on the assertion of their right to travel, which the Supreme Court has defined as a citizen’s right to enter another state and be treated as a welcome visitor rather than an unfriendly alien. They also challenged the discounts under the constitution’s commerce clause, which limits how states and localities regulate interstate commerce.

Last year, Judge Paul A. Engelmayer in Manhattan rejected the lawsuit’s claims, saying the toll policies do not prohibit or significantly restrict access to the New York marketplace.

Engelmayer said evidence “demonstrated convincingly that they have not been seriously affected by the tolls in place” and that the bridge tolls contributed to “a smoothly functioning mass transit system.”

He noted that the toll discounts are given to residents of remote geographical areas who must use bridges frequently for shorter trips and who have limited or no other mass transit connections to the rest of the city.

The judge said the defendants “have convincingly demonstrated that the tolls, and the distribution of toll receipts to fortify mass transit in the New York area, have had a strong overall positive impact on interstate commerce.”

The 2nd Circuit said it was upholding Engelmayer’s written decision for the same reasons he had cited.

MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said: “We’re pleased that the court agreed with Judge Engelmayer’s decision that MTA Bridge and Tunnels’ resident toll discounts are constitutionally sound.”

A lawyer for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

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