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June 14, 2022 11:30 AM, EDT

Attorneys Spar in Closing Statements of RhodeWorks Tolling Trial

Rhode Island toll gantryA truck passes under a tolling gantry in Rhode Island. (WJAR.com)

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After more than two weeks of testimony, a federal tolling trial ended June 13 with an attorney for American Trucking Associations asking a judge to find the state of Rhode Island’s trucks-only “RhodeWorks” tolling program unconstitutional.

The lawsuit, filed nearly four years ago by ATA and two motor carriers, alleged that the state Department of Transportation’s hotly contested tolling plan required out-of-state heavy trucks to pay nearly all of the tolls, while exempting state businesses, cars and intrastate motor carriers.

From here, the trial judge, U.S. District Judge William Smith, has asked for both sides to file their “finding of fact and conclusions” briefs by July 1, and any rebuttals to those briefs by July 15. Smith said he plans to rule on the complex case sometime in September.

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During the trial, both sides offered testimony from experts in support of their claims, and traded barbs in attempting to discredit each side’s expert testimony.

In his closing statements, ATA attorney Reginald Goeke of the law firm Mayer Brown said the so-called “consumption method” of tolling trucks based on the belief that trucks excessively damage roads is a violation of the Dormant Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The Dormant Clause is intended to prohibit state legislation that discriminates against, or unduly burdens, interstate or international commerce.

“This is a discriminatory toll system,” Goeke said. “This is a toll system that is not fairly approximating the use of the facility. This is a system that was designed and intended to target out-of-state users for the purpose of funding Rhode Island’s bridges.”

He added, “It is true that Congress authorizes tolling on the interstates and others do toll on the interstates. But it doesn’t authorize you to do it in a discriminatory fashion. No one else tolls the interstates by only tolling trucks.”

The state has been collecting tolls from truckers under the RhodeWorks plan, which was enacted by the state Legislature, since 2018.

“Your Honor, in the opening I said that the plaintiff’s case was focused on a what-if RhodeWorks tolling program, and not the actual tolling program,” Rhode Island DOT attorney John Tarantino of the law firm of Adler Pollock & Sheehan P.C., said in his closing arguments. “Plaintiffs want you to second-guess the Legislature on how it determined to improve our roads — and the worst-in-the-nation’s bridges — following Congress’ authorization to toll the bridges on the interstate, which had been previously untolled.”

He added, “Congress said, yes, you can toll bridges on the interstate. It didn’t direct the state to toll all vehicles. It didn’t say you can only toll trucks, or not. There are more out-of-state Class 8-plus trucks traveling on roads and tolled bridges on the interstate than there are Rhode Island-based trucks.”

Although the state began collecting the tolls beginning in mid-2018, ATA and Rhode Island DOT have been sparring via court documents since July 2018.

The idea for the tolling plan dates to 2016, when the state’s General Assembly declared that 23% of Rhode Island’s bridges were structurally deficient and that “tractor-trailers cause in excess of 70% of the damage to the state’s transportation infrastructure, including Rhode Island bridges, on an annual basis.”

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ATA has disputed the state’s method of measuring wear and tear on Rhode Island roads.

The General Assembly also maintained that “a funding gap” existed between “the revenue needed to maintain all bridges in structurally sound and good condition and the annual amounts generated by current dedicated revenue sources.”

The trucks-only tolling system was part of then-Gov. Gina Raimondo’s broader RhodeWorks program, which has been projected to generate $4.7 billion to finance infrastructure projects.