Rhode Island tolls will stay in place during ATA’s lawsuit

September 14, 2020

Tyson Fisher

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The American Trucking Associations’ request to shut down Rhode Island tolls for truckers while the lawsuit challenging them  is pending has been denied after a “close call” decision from a federal court.

On Sept. 10, Judge William E. Smith of the U.S. District Court in Rhode Island denied ATA’s motion for injunction relief. In his order, Judge Smith called his decision “a close call in several respects.”

Essentially, the court states that ATA’s arguments are unlikely to succeed on their merits, setting the tone for the potential outcome of the case. However, the order does not necessarily foreshadow the final decision in the Rhode Island toll case.

“To be clear, this holding in no way presages the final outcome of plaintiffs’ claim at trial,” Smith stated in the ruling. “With the benefit of factual development and/or testimony at trial, plaintiffs may well be able to show that the RhodeWorks Act was enacted with an intent to discriminate against interstate commerce. On this record, however, the court cannot conclude that plaintiffs have shown a likelihood of success on the merits sufficient to be granted this extraordinary relief.”

Judge Smith has already denied the state’s attempt to dismiss the case.

Rhode Island tolls discriminate against interstate commerce

One argument is that the truck-only tolls discriminate against interstate commerce, both by effect and by intent. ATA pointed to public statements made by state officials, including Gov. Gina Raimondo, and a study they knew about that suggests they were aware the Rhode Island tolls would disproportionately affect out-of-state truckers.

The court was not persuaded.

“After considering all evidence proffered in support of the discriminatory purpose argument, perhaps a close call, the court finds that plaintiffs have not met their burden,” Smith ruled.

Explaining the decision, Smith said that Rhode Island “enjoys a presumption of constitutionality” and that the text of RhodeWorks does not make it clear that the General Assembly intended to discriminate against out-of-state truckers.

Regarding the circumstantial evidence of officials’ statements, the court said that it falls short of proving discrimination. Smith called the statements “selective and presented without context.”

Currently, the court is deciding whether or not state officials can invoke government privilege to avoid honoring ATA’s subpoenas.

ATA also argued that the Rhode Island tolling structure uses toll caps which function as a flat fee that “necessarily will have a discriminatory effect on out-of-state and interstate travelers.” The court responded by stating “this issue remains for trial where evidence of concrete tolling data will show its practical effect.” However, there is not enough evidence at the time to justify injunctive relief.

Fair approximation

ATA argues that the RhodeWorks toll caps “eliminate the connection between the amount paid and the use of the tolled facility” because “trucks that accumulate vastly different daily mileage on Rhode Island roads will pay identical aggregate tolls.” Furthermore, the association states the overwhelming majority of vehicles driving over Rhode Island bridges do not pay tolls. That said, a very small subset – trucks – are left footing the bill for bridge repairs.

On this argument, the court again said that more evidence is needed before making any determination.

“Although the parties offer some data as to the number of vehicles traversing Rhode Island roads and studies as to the impact of commercial trucks on bridges, the evidence in the record as it stands is insufficient to make a determination as to whether the tolls fairly approximate the use of the facilities,” the court ruled. “Consequently, the court cannot say that plaintiffs have demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits as to this issue.”

Rhode Island tolls cause irreparable harm

Justifying the need to halt Rhode Island tolls during litigation, ATA argues that the tolls cause irreparable harm to truckers. ATA also states that stopping the tolls is in the public interest.

The court does state that these arguments “likely cut in favor” of ATA. However, since the association cannot show it is likely to succeed on its other arguments, “the remaining factors become matters of idle curiosity.”

Although the court’s ruling keeps Rhode Island tolls in place, Judge Smith did offer both parties a glimpse of what the court expects during trial. Now, ATA has an idea about what evidence it will need to convince the court to rule in its favor. Essentially, the bar has been set as the court battle continues.

Tyson Fisher

Tyson Fisher joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson is a lifelong Kansas Citian.