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Court Rules Against Fee for Passengers on Private Vessels

The United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that the fee imposed on ferry passengers was unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause and the Tonnage Clause. This case questions the constitutionality of a fee imposed on passengers traveling via private ferry from Bridgeport, Connecticut to Port Jefferson, New York. The Bridgeport Port Authority (BPA) imposed this fee after leasing the dock space from the privately owned ferry company, the plaintiff in this case. The BPA argued that this lease entitled them to charge a fee for passengers making the voyage.
The Court disagreed, however, asserting that this fee was both too high and unconstitutional. First, the Court relied on the “dormant” Commerce Clause jurisprudence, which determines the constitutionality of government imposed fees on individuals engaged in interstate commerce. The Court determined that this clause was designed to make the users of state-provided facilities responsible for a reasonable fee needed for the construction and maintenance of the facility. Ultimately, the Court ruled that the fee imposed by the BPA was not a fair approximation of a ferry passenger’s use of facilities because the BPA sought to maximize profit as oppose to simply pay for the construction and maintenance of the dock.
This fee also violated the Tonnage Clause, which “prohibits…duties to raise general revenues.” The Court used testimony from the BPA’s own expert witness to justify their ruling. During the trial, an expert for the BPA stated that the BPA “act[s] as an incubator for growth of economic activity,” confirming the Court’s belief that the BPA was focused on increasing revenue rather than simply paying for the construction and maintenance of the dock.
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