Federal Judge Strikes Down Rhode Island Truck Tolling Plan as Unconstitutional
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A federal judge struck down as unconstitutional a truck tolling plan by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation that was challenged in a lawsuit by American Trucking Associations as specifically aimed at motor carriers traveling through the state.
“Because RhodeWorks fails to fairly apportion its tolls among bridge users based on a fair approximation of their use of the bridges, [it] was enacted with a discriminatory purpose, and is discriminatory in effect, the statute’s tolling regime is unconstitutional under the dormant Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution,” wrote District Judge William Smith in a ruling Sept. 21.
“Plaintiffs’ request for a permanent injunction is granted, and RhodeWorks tolling system is enjoined.” A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Dan McKee said the tolls were turned off at 4 p.m. on Sept. 21.
ATA President Chris Spear said in response: “We told Rhode Island’s leaders from the start that their crazy scheme was not only discriminatory, but illegal. We’re pleased the court agreed. To any state looking to target our industry, you better bring your A-game … because we’re not rolling over.”
Spear said ATA has spent $5 million over five years on the case.
The court deferred ruling on the plaintiffs’ request for attorneys’ fees and costs, including expert-witness fees, until after any appeal is decided and a mandate is issued or, if no appeal is taken, until the period for entering a notice of appeal expires.
Smith added tolling highways is a “tricky and controversial” business.
“The need to raise money to fund construction and repairs of bridges must be balanced against the political reality that many local residents and business owners use those same corridors daily to get around the state,” the 91-page ruling states. “The solution they contrived — dubbed ‘RhodeWorks,’ the first and only of its kind in the United States — was to toll only large commercial trucks (or tractor-trailers) at various bridge locations along these major corridors. This plan had the obvious appeal of raising tens of millions of needed dollars from tractor-trailers while leaving locals largely unaffected.”
Rhode Island Trucking Association President Chris Maxwell said it has been a long road to get to this point.
“But this is a tremendous day for our industry — not just here in Rhode Island, but across the country. Had we not prevailed, these tolls would have spread across the country and this ruling sends a strong signal to other states that trucking is not to be targeted as a piggy bank.”
ATA General Counsel Rich Pianka added the ruling vindicates ATA’s contention that the Constitution prohibits states from tolling schemes targeted at the trucking industry, at the expense of interstate commerce.
A Rhode Island DOT spokesman said the agency has not yet decided whether to appeal.
The lawsuit was filed in 2018 by ATA and two motor carriers.
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.”
ATA disputed the state’s method of measuring wear and tear on its 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 truck-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.
In court documents, the state has denied that the tolls authorized under the RhodeWorks Act are, as plaintiffs have characterized them, a “truck-toll regime.”
The defendants also have denied that Raimondo (now U.S. Commerce Secretary) intended to export the state’s tax burden, and have denied that Peter Alviti Jr., director of the Rhode Island DOT and the named defendant in the lawsuit, ever intended to place a burden disproportionately on out-of-state toll payers.
During the trial, both sides traded barbs in attempts to discredit the expert testimony.
ATA attorney Reginald Goeke of the law firm Mayer Brown said, “Judge Smith’s well-reasoned landmark decision sends the unmistakable message that states may not place a disproportionate share of their highway costs on truckers in order to shift costs from in-state drivers and may not discriminate against out-of-state truckers in the structuring of their toll regimes. Rhode Island and its counsel engaged in scorched earth and 'wily' litigation tactics throughout this case, but in the end, the Court was convinced that requiring 3% of vehicles to pay 100% of the toll costs did not pass constitutional muster.”
In his closing statements, Goeke 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.
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The Dormant Clause is intended to prohibit state legislation that discriminates against, or unduly burdens, interstate or international commerce.
“This is a system that was designed and intended to target out-of-state users for the purpose of funding Rhode Island’s bridges,” Goeke said.
Rhode Island DOT attorney John Tarantino of the law firm Adler Pollock & Sheehan, countered in his closing argument: “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. 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 un-tolled.”
Tarantino continued, “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.”