International group throws support behind Rhode Island’s appeal of truck toll verdict

March 2, 2023

Ryan Witkowski


The case to appeal a federal district court decision that ended Rhode Island’s truck-only toll program is gaining some support.

On March 1, the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals in support of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority and their efforts to reverse the earlier decision.

In February, the state filed the appeal, arguing that the district court had incorrectly struck down a state statute on federal constitutional grounds. Additionally, the state contends that the case “presents important questions relating to federalism and the dormant Commerce Clause.”

“The district court was wrong to strike down a use-based road toll in the name of the dormant Commerce Clause,” the state’s appeal read. “That unprecedented second-guessing of a state’s effort to solve its complex infrastructure problems requires reversal.”

The brief filed by IBTTA argues four points about the tolling industry which they feel the court should consider:

  • From a global perspective, it is not unusual to toll only large trucks.
  • Tolling is only one source of revenue to support programs like RhodeWorks.
  • Substantively, it is key that interstate commercial behavior was not materially affected by RhodeWorks.
  • Procedurally, RhodeWorks took all reasonable measures to make a fair approximation of use.

The district court’s decision centered on the state’s possible violation of the dormant Commerce Clause, saying that the tolls were “enacted with a discriminatory purpose and discriminatory in effect.” However, both Rhode Island and the IBTTA contend that the application of the clause – which prohibits states from passing legislation that discriminates against, or excessively burdens, interstate commerce – was unjust in this case.

“These tolls do not appear to have materially changed the actual behavior of in-state or out-of-state companies required to pay the toll, which is what we believe the relevant consideration should be to implicate the Commerce Clause,” IBTTA’s brief read.

Before the tolls were enacted in 2018, opponents of the idea argued that truckers would alter their routes to avoid paying the tolls in Rhode Island. However, the group points to figures from the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, which showed that after six months of charging semis, the truck-toll volume was running ahead of the state’s expectations. They contend these numbers showed that “truckers plainly did not take alternate routes to any material degree” and that the tolls had no effect on interstate commerce.

“Aside from inevitable complaints and arguments from economic self-interest, we see no evidence of a change in actual commercial behavior that could be associated with an actual harm to trucking companies – and certainly not to a degree that warrants federal intervention into state government activity,” the brief read.

Furthermore, the group points out that tolling only accounts for 10% of the overall investment in the RhodeWorks program, which IBTTA says isn’t an “excessive burden” as outlined in the Commerce Clause.

On top of arguing the improper application of the Commerce Clause, IBTTA also says that truck-only tolls, from a global perspective, are not uncommon.

While that may be the case globally, the use of truck-only tolls in the United States isn’t just uncommon – it’s unheard of. As noted in the district court’s decision, “aside from RhodeWorks, no other record evidence reveals a tolling system targeting only large commercial trucks.”

The group acknowledges the U.S. has “limited experience” with the use of truck-only tolls, they point to European countries like Germany, Denmark, Luxembourg, Belgium, Bulgaria, and Sweden to enact truck-only tolls. IBTTA contends that in those countries, the improvements to infrastructure funded by the tolls have benefited the trucking industry more than it has hurt. They say that while there have been some growing pains, countries that have chosen to adopt truck-only tolling practices have managed to change some minds.

“If anything is certain in our industry, it is that some road users will inevitably complain about any toll, no matter what. The German system initially faced considerable opposition from the trucking community,” the group said in their brief. “But the German government was able to show the cost of roadway improvements and maintenance required to address the costs of damage from heavy goods vehicles over the life of the priced roadways … This business case helped turn the opposition of the trucking industry into support.”

The intention of the truck toll program was to fund the state’s RhodeWorks program, which sought to address the state’s dilapidated roads and bridges. In 2016, the Rhode Island General Assembly declared that 23% of the state’s bridges were structurally deficient and attributed more than 70% of annual damage to the state’s transportation infrastructure to tractor-trailers.

That need for repair is echoed in a report from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. At 17.5%, Rhode Island ranked third in 2020 among U.S. states with the highest percentage of total bridges in poor condition. Furthermore, the state ranked first in 2020 among U.S. states with the largest percentage of deck area, the surface of a bridge, in poor condition at 19.5%.

The state began collecting the tolls in mid-2018. Since its inception, 12 truck toll locations across Rhode Island had generated approximately $100 million before being ordered to shut down.

Jennifer Walsh, director of communications with IBTTA, said the organization concurs with Rhode Island when it comes to commercial vehicles causing that lion’s share of the damage to infrastructure, and it feels the state’s attempt to collect truck-only tolls met all regulatory requirements.

“IBTTA supports the state of Rhode Island in its appeal of the decision by the Federal District Court of Rhode Island to end the truck tolling program in the state. … The disciplines of civil and structural engineering demonstrate that heavier vehicles consume more of the useful life of highway and bridge assets, because they do more damage to pavements and structures over time,” Walsh told Land Line via email. “Accordingly, many road-pricing practices use differentiated pricing to recognize the impacts that different highway users exact upon infrastructure and the life-cycle costs of maintaining transportation assets. IBTTA believes the RhodeWorks program met all the relevant criteria as they are understood by our industry.”

According to the IBTTA website, the group is “the worldwide association for the owners and operators of toll facilities and the businesses that serve them.” Founded in 1932, they represent members in 23 countries on six continents. LL