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July 12, 2018 5:15 PM, EDT
Editorial: An Unlawful and Inequitable Scheme

Rhode Island’s controversial trucks-only tolling program must face a judge’s gavel, as a group including American Trucking Associations and several fleets is suing the state over the plan.

Opponents maintain that the plan is blatantly unfair, as it assesses tolls just on trucks to cover the cost of maintaining infrastructure for all vehicles. Further still, they maintain the plan is nothing short of a violation of the U.S. Constitution, since tolling will increase the financial burden on interstate freight carriers and impede interstate commerce.

ATA President Chris Spear didn’t mince words in a July 10 statement announcing the lawsuit, calling the state’s RhodeWorks program “a extortionate plan.” Spear said, “We’ve warned politicians in Rhode Island that these truck-only tolls were unconstitutional and should be rolled back. It is unfortunate that Gov. Raimondo and her administration did not heed those warnings, but now we will see them in court.”

Joining ATA in the suit is Cumberland Farms Inc., a convenience store chain in New England which operates 90 tractors and 120 trailers. The other plaintiffs are M&M Transport Services Inc., a family-owned freight carrier based in Quincy, Mass., and New England Motor Freight, a regional less-than-truckload carrier based in Elizabeth, N.J.

There is reason to believe these plaintiffs will prevail, perhaps on those constitutional grounds.

Two years ago, ATA won a similar lawsuit against the New York State Thruway Authority, but in that case toll revenue paid by commercial truck operators was being used to maintain the state’s canal system. In that ruling, a New York District Court ruled that the diversion of toll revenue from truckers for canals violated the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“The state of New York cannot insulate the Canal System from the vagaries of the political process and taxpayer preferences by imposing the cost of its upkeep on those who drive the New York Thruway in interstate commerce,” Chief Judge Colleen McMahan decreed.

That’s not quite the same thing as tolling trucks to use roads — but it still speaks to the argument of singling out one party to pay for broader infrastructure improvements.

Especially if better options exist. In this case, an increase in the nation’s long-stagnant federal fuel taxes could help Rhode Island and other states address the problem, and do so in a way that is fair for everyone. There are options for where it could be assessed, but common through those options is the idea that the cost will be distributed evenly. Which is, simply put, more fair.

The courts are where parties go to get a fair shake. It will be interesting to see what happens when RhodeWorks has its day in court.