WEST GREENWICH, R.I. — Rhode Island began charging tractor-trailers to drive on Interstate 95 on the morning of June 11. But while opponents rallied against a tolling scheme they call unconstitutional, it is unclear when — or even if — a long-threatened legal challenge will come.
“It could happen today. It could happen tomorrow. It could happen months from now,” Rhode Island Trucking Association President Chris Maxwell said at a combined rally campaign event with House Minority Leader and anti-toll candidate for governor Patricia Morgan. “But every day it does not happen means there could be another strategy going forward. We don’t know at this point.”
In the three years since state lawmakers began debating the truck toll proposal, the trucking industry has called it unfair and warned legal action is likely once tolls are charged.
Asked to clarify whether truckers are backing down from a lawsuit, Maxwell told The Journal that court action is “more than likely,” but that strategy is being formulated by the national parent of the trucking association in conjunction with other policy and political fights.
“This is not a one-front war where we are just going to sue,” Maxwell said. “There could be many tactics through which this could be handled. It could be legislatively, administratively. ... More than likely it is legal action, but I have handed it to [American Trucking Associations].”
“By pressing ahead with her ill-conceived RhodeWorks scheme, Gov. Raimondo is violating the Constitution by interfering with interstate commerce,” said ATA President and CEO Chris Spear. “She and her administration were warned of this repeatedly by the trucking industry and we will continue to fight these unjust tolls by any means available.”
Truck drivers participate in a protest Feb. 10, 2016, in Providence, R.I., against proposed highway truck tolls. A convoy of trucks circled the Rhode Island State House with horns blaring as the state House of Representatives assembled to vote on the tolls. (AP Photo/Matt O’Brien)
After roughly two years of planning and development, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation activated the first two truck tolls early on the morning of June 11 on the southern stretch of I-95 between Exits 2 and 5. It culminates a lengthy effort to get businesses that move goods across the state’s highways to finance construction and repair of those highways.
As expected, it set off competing media blitzes seeking to either demonize or normalize the tolls.
“Make no mistake, these tolls will increase transportation costs and those costs will be passed on to Rhode Islanders,” Morgan said above the rumble of diesel engines at the rally with the trucking association. “When I am governor I will dismantle the tolls. They are coming down.”
Gov. Gina Raimonodo’s administration fought back.
“The tolling systems are working well,” DOT spokesman Charles St. Martin wrote in an email. “RIDOT is implementing tractor-trailer-only tolling because trucks cause the greatest amount of damage to our roads and bridges and yet pay a disproportionately small share for the upkeep and repair of those roads.”
With toll opponents expected to attack, the DOT this month launched a television and radio advertising campaign to defend the tolls to residents.
“Take a look around as you drive through Rhode Island,” a narrator reads in the DOT’s radio ad. “It’s obvious that the state’s roads and bridges need repair. In fact, more than 150 bridges are structurally deficient. While we’re working hard to improve safety for everyone, these projects are expensive. To help fund these safety improvements, we will soon begin tolling tractor-trailers.”
The pro-toll media offensive — including three weeks of air time on four television stations and eight radio stations — will cost $61,800, according to St. Martin. The expenses will come out of the DOT’s operating budget.
Now that the first two tolls are up and running, the state expects to add a dozen more sometime next year. When fully operational, the full truck toll network is expected to generate $45 million per year.
St. Martin said the DOT has applied for federal environmental approval of the remaining tolls and, pending that green light, hopes to have them up and collecting sometime in 2019.
As truckers complained that being singled out for tolls is unfair, they have also warned that the industry will soon start driving around Rhode Island or on secondary roads, causing state revenue estimates to come up short.
“Truckers will start avoiding the tolls by themselves,” Maxwell said when asked if routes have been formulated to avoid the tolls. “What will happen is a computer will be telling people where to go, not the driver. This is all technology. ... It is going to be a no-fly zone. Trucks will go around the state where they can.”