Rhode Island’s truck toll system is unconstitutional, judge rules

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A federal judge slammed the brakes on Rhode Island’s truck tolls and sided with the long-haul trucking industry’s complaint that road charges were unfair and unconstitutional.

After U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith ordered Rhode Island officials to stop collecting truck tolls within 48 hours, Rhode Island Department of Transportation spokeswoman Lisbeth Pettengill said Wednesday afternoon that the tolls would be cut “probably this evening”.

At that time, Gov. Dan McKee was still considering his options, and the administration had not said whether it would appeal the decision.

The state has collected $101 million in truck tolls since the first one launched in 2018. Without the dozen tolls across the state, Rhode Island would lose about $40 million a year in revenue.

In a 91-page ruling that recounted the disparagement that Rhode Island is “little more than a speck in the fast lane to Cape Cod,” Smith wrote that by discriminating against out-of-state trucks, tolls imposed an unconstitutional burden. on interstate commerce.

“Because RhodeWorks fails to fairly allocate its tolls among bridge users based on a fair approximation of their bridge usage, was enacted for a discriminatory purpose, and has a discriminatory effect, the RhodeWorks toll regime law is unconstitutional under the dormant Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, Smith wrote.

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Rhode Island is the only state in the country with a truck toll system like the one Smith shot down. The trucking industry has fought it since 2018 largely to stop any other state from trying theirs.

On Wednesday, the industry celebrated.

“This is a great day for our industry – not just here in Rhode Island, but across the country – if we hadn’t prevailed, these tolls would have spread across the country and this decision sends a strong signal to other states that trucking is not to be targeted as a piggy bank,” said Chris Maxwell, president of the Rhode Island Trucking Association, in a press release.

And Republicans in Rhode Island who had opposed tolls and warned of this outcome for years could say “I told you so”.

“As House Minority Leader in 2016 during floor debate on this bill, this is precisely what I and the rest of House Republicans predicted,” Rep. Brian Newberry tweeted. R-North Smithfield. “Barring an appeal reversal, this is an entirely avoidable tax disaster for RI, presented exclusively by Democrats.”

Senate GOP Leader Jessica de la Cruz warned that the decision against tolling only trucks would prompt ruling Democrats to toll all vehicles instead.

“It was ridiculous that the General Assembly passed a plan that called for new tolls across the state and millions of people in debt with so little information,” de la Cruz said in a press release. “Anyone who tries to implement tolls on cars as a result of this court ruling will face fierce opposition from our members.

Although State House Democrats didn’t talk much about tolls, they promised that predictions of impending auto tolls would prove wrong.

“We want to be very clear: The governor and his administration do not support or implement a passenger vehicle toll program,” McKee spokesman Matt Sheaff said in an email. “As this decision has just come out, our team is reviewing the decision and assessing next steps.

In a joint statement, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate Speaker Dominick Ruggerio said the Assembly “has banned passenger car tolls, and regardless of the eventual outcome of this lawsuit , that won’t change.”

Smith’s ruling said nothing about the state having to repay any of the tolls it collected; DOT’s Pettengill said that wouldn’t happen.

Treasurer General Seth Magaziner said Wednesday that the state had considered borrowing from road toll revenue but never moved in that direction, so the decision should have no impact on covenants. .

The state has hired Kapsch Traffic Com IVHS Inc. in a 10-year, $69 million contract to build, maintain and operate truck tolls. It was not immediately clear whether, if at all, the contract would cover dismantling.

In addition to the cost of setting up the tolls, the state had paid outside legal counsel Adler Pollock & Sheehan PC $7.1 million in May to defend the state against the truckers’ lawsuit. The legal battle included a battle to block Raimondo and former House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello from having to give depositions.

Road tolls were a signature policy of former Governor Gina Raimondo, who is now U.S. Secretary of Commerce, and one of her first major legislative initiatives when she took office in 2015.

Smith’s decision for the trucking industry was based at least in part on General Assembly changes to the original 2015 toll bill to appease truckers and local businesses, such as construction, that use heavy vehicles.

Before toll legislation was passed in early 2016, lawmakers exempted all vehicles except tractor-trailers, including dump trucks and box trucks. They also capped tolls at $40 per day and charged one vehicle only once in each direction at each gate. All of these changes have benefited local businesses over out-of-state operators.

“Rhode Island has a legitimate – even compelling – interest in maintaining its troubled bridges,” Smith wrote. “But there’s no reason why interest can’t be served by a toll system that doesn’t violate the Commerce Clause. Indeed, many states have implemented toll systems that apportion equitably their costs between different users and do not discriminate against interstate commerce.”

It’s unclear whether Rhode Island’s truck toll system could survive a legal challenge if it charged all heavy trucks and lifted all caps — as in the original plan.

The state could also seek help from Congress, but that path could be even murkier.

The state collected $34 million in truck tolls in the 2020-21 fiscal year and is expected to charge truckers $42 million in the year ending June 30.

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