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December 6, 2019 11:15 AM, EST

Trucking Scores a Win in Rhode Island Tolls Case

Rhode Island Tolls CaseA truck passes under one of the tolling gantries in Rhode Island. (WJAR.com)

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An appeals court has determined that the trucking industry’s lawsuit against Rhode Island’s trucks-only tolling system is valid and can proceed in federal court.

The decision arrives just as lawmakers in neighboring Connecticut debate adoption of a trucks-only tolling plan of their own.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled Dec. 5 that the Rhode Island lawsuit is not barred by the Tax Injunction Act, which restricts the power of federal district courts to prevent the collection or enforcement of state taxes. 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. Trucking industry leaders who ardently have opposed the tolls hailed the appeals court decision as a victory.

American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear

Spear

“We have long believed that Rhode Island’s RhodeWorks truck-only toll scheme was a violation of the Constitution and an attempt to use our industry as a piggy bank,” American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear said. “Today’s decision by the First Circuit paves the way for us to make that argument in federal court, and we look forward to the chance to vindicate our case on the merits.”

ATA, Cumberland Farms Inc. and M&M Transport Services Inc. filed the initial lawsuit contesting the constitutionality of trucks-only tolling July 10. New England Motor Freight also was part of the lawsuit but has since filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and shut down operations.

The U.S. District Court of Rhode Island announced the lawsuit’s dismissal March 19, and the trucking groups appealed that dismissal March 28.

ATA’s lawsuit argued that trucks-only tolls discriminate against interstate commerce.

The RhodeWorks program is meant to finance infrastructure projects such as bridge replacements and road improvements. According to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, about 22% of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient.

“Today’s ruling is just another step in getting these extortionary tolls torn down, and we would urge the governor and her allies to do the right thing and put an end to this unfair and unconstitutional toll scheme so we can get serious about working together on how to equitably and effectively rebuild our infrastructure,” Rhode Island Trucking Association President Chris Maxwell said. “With this ruling in hand, we are confident we will prevail in this suit once it is decided on the merits.”

RIDOT spokeswoman Liz Pettengill said the court decision determines the venue in which the case can be heard but does not determine the outcome of the case itself. In the meantime, she said, Rhode Island’s tolling program is meeting department expectations and will continue.

“This ruling determines only the venue — that federal court is the appropriate venue for the trial,” Pettengill said. “If the federal court wishes to have jurisdiction, that is fine and does not reflect upon the merits of the case. We remain highly confident that the state will prevail in the lawsuit brought by [ATA].”

Appeals Court Opinion by Transport Topics on Scribd

Amid this fighting, a trucks-only tolling system is part of the latest iteration of Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont’s transportation investment plan.

Lamont sent lawmakers a letter Dec. 6 outlining his plan for commercial truck tolls on 12 bridges carrying some important routes, such as state routes 8 and 15 as well as interstates 84, 95, 395 and 684.

This proposal is projected to finance $19.4 billion for infrastructure investment.

Rates would vary based on location and truck type.

“Increasing the contributions those tractor-trailers and trucks like them make to our Special Transportation Fund will allow Connecticut to implement a multimodal vision for our transportation future that reduces the congestion plaguing everyday commuters as well as the trucking industry,” Lamont said in his letter.

Connecticut hasn’t had tolls in place since the late 1980s; they were removed after a fatal truck crash at a toll plaza.

Lamont’s letter was delivered just a few weeks after lawmakers in the House of Representatives put forth a plan suggesting trucks-only tolls. House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D-Berlin) and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) issued a proposal Nov. 19 asking Lamont to consider trucks-only tolls on 12 of the 14 sites outlined in CT2030, the governor’s transportation plan that was presented Nov. 7.

Motor Transport Association of Connecticut President Joe Sculley has been a staunch opponent of the tolls. Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven) urged Lamont to call off his trucks-only tolling plan in light of the appeals court’s decision regarding Rhode Island. However Lamont indicated that he believes Rhode Island will prevail in federal court.

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