A federal judge has dismissed the trucking industry’s lawsuit against Rhode Island for its trucks-only tolling system.
The U.S. District Court of Rhode Island announced the dismissal March 19, handing a victory to Rhode Island Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti, who had filed a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed in August. Alviti’s motion was a response to the joint lawsuit filed July 10 by American Trucking Associations, Cumberland Farms Inc. and M&M Transport Services Inc., contesting the constitutionality of trucks-only tolling.
New England Motor Freight was also part of the lawsuit but has since declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and will shut down operations.
In his plea for the suit’s dismissal, Alviti cited the Tax Injunction Act and the 11th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The Tax Injunction Act restricts the power of federal district courts to prevent the collection or enforcement of state taxes.
Chief Judge William Smith’s decision concluded that the case needed to be heard in the state’s court system.
“The facts are clear that the fees, while dubbed tolls, are really a highly targeted and sophisticated tax designed to fund infrastructure maintenance and improvements that would otherwise need to be paid for by other forms of tax-generated revenue,” Smith’s decision said. “As such, the court is without jurisdiction under the TIA; the federal case must be dismissed and ultimately heard in the courts of Rhode Island.”
The 11th Amendment states that the country’s federal judicial power shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by citizens of another state, or by citizens or subjects of any foreign state.
“ATA is disappointed by [the] decision, in which the U.S. District Court ruled that it was without power to hear ATA’s constitutional challenge to the discriminatory RhodeWorks truck-only tolls, and that the challenge must instead be brought in state court,” said ATA Deputy General Counsel Rich Pianka. “ATA is reviewing the decision and considering next steps, but looks forward to vindicating its underlying claims on the merits, whatever the venue.”
A RhodeWorks sign. (WPRI12 via YouTube)
The trucks-only tolling system is part of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s RhodeWorks program, which is projected to generate $4.7 billion to finance infrastructure projects such as bridge replacements and road improvements.
The court document notes that, according to the General Assembly, large trucks cause 70% of the damage to Rhode Island’s roads and bridges, but contribute less than 20% of the state’s annual revenue for infrastructure projects.
The first two (of an eventual 13) truck-tolling gantries in Rhode Island became operational June 11. They are located in Hopkinton and Exeter, which are on the state’s border with Connecticut.
According to RIDOT, about 22% of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient.
Under Rhode Island’s toll system, a hauler within the state who needed to pass through one gantry repeatedly for dispatches would be charged less than a trucker moving through the state who encountered multiple gantries.
ATA’s lawsuit argued that truck tolls discriminate against interstate commerce. If a state charges a user fee for access to channels of interstate commerce, that fee has to be a fair approximation of use and cannot discriminate between in-state and out-of-state interests.
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association CEO Patrick Jones commended the court’s decision and defended Rhode Island’s right to toll. IBTTA represents toll facility owners and operators.
“IBTTA supports the state of Rhode Island’s plan to use truck tolls as one of many revenue streams to rebuild major bridges in the state,” Jones said. “While the judge who dismissed the lawsuit did not address the merits of the case, we remain hopeful that no court will deny Rhode Island, or any state, the ability to assess user fees including tolls to rebuild its vital bridges and highways.”
Rhode Island Trucking Association President Chris Maxwell, who has repeatedly decried the tolls, said the court decision does not delve into the merits of the lawsuit’s claim.
“Nothing in Judge Smith’s decision speaks to the merits of our claims, only the venue in which we need to bring them,” Maxwell said. “It will now be the ATA’s decision as to whether to proceed in state court or to appeal the decision.”