Anti-Pike class action suit has many backers

John Hilliard

Frustrated by years of helping to foot the Big Dig's bills with their Turnpike tolls, a group of MetroWest residents has filed a class action suit against the Turnpike Authority to end the practice.

"We're sick and tired of it out here," said Robert Ackley of Southborough, who, along with Natick's Sandra Murphy and Douglas Barth of Sudbury, filed the suit against the Turnpike on Friday in Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn.

Barth said the timing was partly based on reports the state would dismantle the Turnpike Authority, as the plaintiffs wanted to move ahead before the agency was eliminated.

"Definitely, that impending call had a lot to do with it," said Barth.

Barth, founder of Free the Pike and part of an unsuccessful 2000 ballot initiative to remove the tolls, said the Turnpike spends 58 cents from every dollar collected from tolls on the Big Dig - and toll revenue is estimated to be about $180 million in 2009.

He said the primary goal is to speed up the dismantling of the Turnpike Authority and end the use of tolls for the Big Dig debt.

"It's hardly about getting money back," said Barth, who estimates he would collect $17 from toll reimbursements, assuming a court awarded them.

Colin Durrant, a spokesman for the Turnpike, wouldn't comment on pending litigation. Mary Z. Connaughton, a longtime opponent of the Turnpike's tolls and a Framingham resident who serves as a Turnpike board member, also wouldn't comment.

One of the plaintiffs' lawyers, Jan Schlictmann, said more than 1,200 people signed up to be part of the suit by yesterday afternoon. A Web page set up for the lawsuit - tollequitytrust.com - includes court filings and an electronic form for toll payers to join the suit.

"We really struck a chord" with toll payers, said Schlictmann.

The first court date in the case is planned for tomorrow, when it will be heard by Associate Justice Herman Smith at Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn at 2 p.m. Smith could decide whether to prevent the sale or lease of Turnpike property, which is worth at least $250 million according to the plaintiffs' suit.

Barth said the move is intended to keep the properties as potential revenue sources for the state.

Schlictmann said there is legal precedent for the suit. In 1984, Emerson College sued the city of Boston after the city charged owners of large buildings fees to cover additional costs of fire services for larger structures. Those fees weren't reserved for a specific service offered to those fee payers, but were collected into a general fund for fire services.

A court decided that those fees were not legitimate because the payers didn't benefit enough from the services provided, payment wasn't voluntary and the revenue went into a general fund, according to the plaintiffs' court paperwork.

Since 1997, state legislation has allowed the Turnpike to use part of its toll revenue toward the costs of the Big Dig, and not just to maintain the roadway. The legislation also saddled the Turnpike Authority with the project's debt, now pegged at $2.2 billion.

"A fee that is charged has to be related to the service being provided" and not used for something else, Schlictmann said.

Schlictmann is a Framingham native who represented a group of Woburn families whose children died from leukemia, or underwent treatment for the disease, in a years-long federal court case in the 1980s against two corporations who the plaintiffs claimed contaminated well water, according to Northeastern University professor Dan Kennedy, who followed the original court case for a local Woburn-based paper.

That case was turned into the 1996 book "A Civil Action," which was followed by a film of the same name, with actor John Travolta playing the role of Schlictmann.

John Hilliard can be reached at 508-626-4449, John.Hilliard@cnc.com or framinghamschools.blogspot.com.