PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Rhode Island’s truck tolling system must end within 48 hours, saying the program to fund repairs to the state’s bridges discriminates against out-of-state truckers and is unconstitutional.
The RhodeWorks tolling system was begun in 2018 to create a funding stream for repairs to about 650 bridges in the state that were either structurally deficient or close to becoming structurally deficient. But U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith wrote the system aimed at commercial tractor-trailers “was enacted with a discriminatory purpose.”
Smith’s 91-page ruling said the system violated a clause of the U.S. Constitution that bars states from passing legislation that discriminates against or excessively burdens interstate commerce. He wrote that an injunction to end the program “shall take effect 48 hours following entry of final judgment.”
The American Trucking Associations hailed a decision.
“We told Rhode Island’s leaders from the start that their crazy scheme was not only discriminatory, but illegal,” ATA President and CEO Chris Spear said. “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.”
ATA, along with Cumberland Farms Inc., M&M Transport Services Inc. and New England Motor Freight, sued Rhode Island, arguing that the RhodeWorks plan violates the Constitution’s Commerce Clause by discriminating against out-of-state economic interests in order to favor in-state interests, and by designing the tolls in a way that does not fairly approximate motorists’ use of the roads.
“It has been a long road to get to this point,” Rhode Island Trucking Association President Chris Maxwell said, “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 called the ruling “strong.”
It “provides our industry a significant win on a critical issue,” he said. “This ruling vindicates ATA’s contention that the Constitution prohibits states from tolling schemes targeted at the trucking industry, at the expense of interstate commerce.”
Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) Chairman John Elliott said that TCA “is tremendously pleased with the recent court ruling that deemed Rhode Island’s tolling system unconstitutional and discriminatory toward trucking. TCA and its members are fully in support of contributing to our national infrastructure funds, but through fair and consistent practices. We have supported ATA’s legal efforts throughout this case and applaud all those involved in securing this win for trucking.”
The trucking industry filed a court challenge against the system in 2018, saying in part it discriminated against out-of-state economic interests in order to favor in-state interests. The state held the legal position that the federal court cannot restrain the collection of state taxes, such as tolls, and state matters should be adjudicated in state court.
“We told Rhode Island’s leaders from the start that their crazy scheme was not only discriminatory, but illegal,” said Chris Spear, president and chief executive of the American Trucking Associations, in a statement Wednesday. “We’re pleased the court agreed.”
The other plaintiffs were Cumberland Farms Inc., M&M Transport Services Inc. and New England Motor Freight.
The state has collected about $101 million in tolls since 2018, including nearly $40 million during the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to a state Transportation Department. Tolls are collected electronically via gantries spanning the state’s major highways.
The decision sets a standard that prevents other states from setting up similar tolling systems, said Rhode Island Trucking Association President Chris Maxwell.
“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,” he said.
Former Gov. Gina Raimondo signed the bill authorizing the tolls in 2016, and the state began collecting them in 2018. Raimondo justified tolling trucks, saying big rigs caused the most damage to roads.
The state is considering its options, according to a statement from the office of current Democratic Gov. Dan McKee. But the administration reiterated that it is not considering tolling passenger vehicles.
“As this ruling has just come out, our team is reviewing the decision and evaluating next steps,” the statement said.
The suit was at first dismissed by a federal district court which said it lacked jurisdiction and the case should be heard in state court. But t he 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2020 reversed the lower court ruling, sending it back to district court.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
The Trucker News Staff produces engaging content for not only TheTrucker.com, but also The Trucker Newspaper, which has been serving the trucking industry for more than 30 years. With a focus on drivers, the Trucker News Staff aims to provide relevant, objective content pertaining to the trucking segment of the transportation industry. The Trucker News Staff is based in Little Rock, Arkansas.