Rhode Island files appeal of federal court ruling against truck-only tolls

November 7, 2022

Ryan Witkowski

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Rhode Island is making good on Gov. Dan McKee’s promise to challenge the ruling of a federal court that declared the state’s trucks-only tolling plan unconstitutional.

The notice of appeal, filed on Oct. 19 with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston, came a month after a lawsuit filed by the American Trucking Associations was successful. ATA argued that Rhode Island’s truck-only tolling plan violated the Commerce Clause, which forbids states from imposing charges with the intent to discriminate in favor of domestic, and against out-of-state or interstate, entities. The court agreed.

“Because RhodeWorks fails to fairly apportion its tolls among bridge users based on a fair approximation of their use of the bridges, (it) was enacted with a discriminatory purpose and is discriminatory in effect, the statute’s tolling regime is unconstitutional under the dormant Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution,” District Judge William Smith wrote in the Sept. 21 ruling.

At the time of the ruling, the state was given 30 days to appeal. The Rhode Island Attorney General’s office, which filed the notice on behalf of Rhode Island Department of Transportation, has not commented on the legal basis for the appeal. On Nov. 2, the appellate court gave the state DOT until Dec. 12 to file its initial brief.

While the specifics of the appeal are still unknown, state Attorney General Peter Neronha said in October that he believes the state has a strong case for the appeal.

“The reality is that the dormant Commerce Clause is not a settled area of the law, even at the U.S. Supreme Court,” Neronha told WPRI. “Given that the program here is unique. Given that there are arguments – I think good ones – as to why this tolling system should be upheld. Certainly it’s one that if the policymakers believe in the policy, then it is one that in my view there’s a credible appeal to be had, and then we should bring it.”

Despite the confidence from the state, Richard Pianka, general counsel for the ATA, is equally confident the initial ruling will be upheld.

“The district court concluded that the RhodeWorks truck-only toll scheme violated the Commerce Clause because, as we established at trial, it discriminates against interstate commerce in both purpose and effect, and because the tolls did not fairly approximate the use motorists make of the tolled bridges,” Pianka told Transport Topics. “We look forward to explaining to the First Circuit that the district court’s thorough and well-reasoned decision got it right.”

The idea for the tolling program dates to 2016, when the state’s General Assembly declared that 23% of Rhode Island’s bridges were structurally deficient and attributed more than 70% of annual damage to the state’s transportation infrastructure to tractor-trailers.

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 shut down last month.

The intention of the truck toll program was to fund the state’s RhodeWorks program, which aimed to address the state’s dilapidated roads and bridges. In 2016, the Rhode Island general assembly concluded that 23% of the state’s bridges were structurally deficient. Additionally, the assembly said over 70% of the annual damage to transportation infrastructure was caused by commercial vehicles. LL

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