Federal Judge Throws Out Lawsuit Challenging Rhode Island’s Truck-Only Tolls
Providence, Rhode Island – A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and three carriers against Rhode Island’s RhodeWorks truck-only toll program.
Citing a lack of jurisdiction, Federal judge William Smith, dismissed ATA’s lawsuit in a ruling that is sure to anger many trucking stakeholders. ATA, along with three northeast-based carriers, filed the suit with the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island in July of 2018 after the controversial RhodeWorks truck-only tolling plan went into effect in June.
The suit argues the Rhode Island Department of Transportation’s (RIDOT) RhodeWorks plan is “unconstitutional” because it imposes tolls “disproportionately” on out-of-state truck drivers and operators, thus violating the Commerce Clause. Judge Smith’s determination was that the tolls actually constitute a “tax” under the state’s Tax Injunction Act (TIA), and therefore the federal court lacks jurisdiction to hear such a case.
Judge Smith explained his ruling by saying, “Although not referred to as ‘taxes’ in the authorizing legislation, the tolls were enacted with the express intention of raising revenues to cover a long-standing infrastructure ‘funding gap.’”
Further, Smith indicated that though the fees in this case are referred to as ‘tolls,’ they “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.”
ATA Deputy General Counsel Rich Pianka said the ruling was disappointing. In a statement released shortly after the ruling, Pianka said, “ATA is reviewing the decision and considering next steps, but looks forward to vindicating its underlying claims on the merits, whatever the venue.”
In order to proceed, ATA must now file the suit in Rhode Island state court which could be an even more difficult venue to prevail in, according to experts Transportation Nation Network (TNN) has spoken to about the case.
The first two of the planned truck-tolling gantries in Rhode Island went into operation last June over Interstate 95 near the Connecticut state border. The next one is expected to be operational by May.
The remaining 10 will reportedly be operational every 30-60 days thereafter. All are expected to be completed by May 2020 and will collect tolls over major routes, including Interstates 95, 195, 295, U.S. Route 6 and State Route 14.
The tolls are expected to bring in $500 million over 10 years to help rebuild crumbling state infrastructure. “The tolls collected at each location in Rhode Island will go to repair the bridge or bridge group associated with that toll location,” RIDOT spokeswoman Lisbeth Pettengill said at the time of the plan’s announcement. “The rationale behind the RhodeWorks tolling program was to toll the vehicles that caused the damage that needs to be repaired.”
Pettengill is confident the RhodeWorks plan will eventually be declared constitutional regardless of the venue. “We are prepared to defend the tractor-trailer truck-only tolling program and have been prepared to do so for three years. We are confident that we will prevail,” she said after the suit was filed.
Chris Maxwell, president of the Rhode Island Trucking Association, has blasted the RhodeWorks plan. “The lawsuit details with great clarity how Governor (Gina) Raimondo’s RhodeWorks truck-only scheme is a blatant violation of multiple constitutional provisions designed to protect interstate commerce,” he said.
A map of the tolling locations is available at www.ridot.net/Tolling.
TNN will continue to monitor new developments.