Rhode Island seeks appeal of truck toll ruling

February 16, 2023

Ryan Witkowski


Rhode Island is seeking an appeal to reverse a federal court’s ruling that the state’s truck-only tolling program is unconstitutional.

In a brief filed on Feb.10 with the U.S. District Court of Appeals, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation argues that the court should grant oral argument because the district court struck down a state statute on federal constitutional grounds. Additionally, they contend the case “presents important questions relating to federalism and the dormant Commerce Clause.”

On Sept. 21, 2022, a U.S. District Court in Rhode Island granted a permanent injunction and ordered the state to stop collecting tolls on large commercial trucks. The court ruled that the fees were “enacted with a discriminatory purpose” and deemed Rhode Island’s truck-only tolls unconstitutional.

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. Since 2018, the 12 truck toll locations across Rhode Island had generated approximately $100 million before being ordered to shut down.

“Rhode Island has a legitimate – even compelling – interest in the maintenance of its ailing bridges,” U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith wrote in his decision. “But there is no reason that interest cannot be served by a tolling system that does not offend the Commerce Clause. Indeed, many states have implemented tolling systems that fairly apportion their costs across various users and do not discriminate against interstate commerce.”

However, the state says the application of the commerce clause by the federal judge was misguided and problematic.

“The district court held that the dormant Commerce Clause forecloses Rhode Island’s effort to fix its crumbling bridges by imposing a facially neutral toll on the classes of trucks that cause the lion’s share of the damage yet contribute a disproportionately small share to infrastructure maintenance,” the state’s appeal read. “In so doing, the district court transformed the dormant Commerce Clause into a mechanism for federal courts to displace the reasoned judgments of state legislatures seeking to solve complex infrastructure problems.”

The state argues that the truck-only tolls are not discriminatory based on how they are determined and applied.

First, they contend that commercial vehicles contribute a disproportionately small amount to the overall upkeep of the state’s infrastructure. According to data from RhodeWorks, tractor-trailers cause “in excess of 70% of the damage to the state’s transportation infrastructure, yet contribute less than 20% of the revenues used to keep that infrastructure in good repair.”

Additionally, the state’s appeal says the tolls are unbiased because they are levied on all semis – both in- and out-of-state alike – and are calculated based on the Federal Highway Administration’s vehicle classification schedule. The state also says that per-day caps on tolls are available to all tractor-trailers regardless of where they are registered.

“The dormant Commerce Clause does not greenlight the district court’s brand of micromanagement,” the appeal read. “The doctrine protects interstate commerce. It does not give federal judges free-ranging authority to iron out every perceived unfairness in the brass tacks of states’ revenues collection measures.”

In the appeal, the state says it faces an “infrastructure crisis” and claims to have “the single worst record for structural deficiencies nationwide.” RhodeWorks says 23% of the state’s bridges – around 200 total – have been deemed “structurally deficient” and that “many more are functionally obsolete.”

The state adds that truck tolling is being used as an alternative strategy for funding infrastructure improvements after federal funds, state bonds and fuel taxes have failed to generate sufficient revenue for the needed repairs.

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