ATA, 3 carriers file suit over Rhode Island's truck-only tolls

 A truck passes underneath one of two currently operational toll gantries in Rhode Island along I-95. The state plans to add up to 14 total gantries to collect tolls on trucks.

A truck passes underneath one of two currently operational toll gantries in Rhode Island along I-95. The state plans to add up to 14 total gantries to collect tolls on trucks.

Since its announcement several years ago, the truck-only toll plan put together by the state of Rhode Island has faced opposition from trucking advocates in the state and nationally, from protests to environmental studies to threats of lawsuits to stop them.

Finally implemented June 11, the American Trucking Associations and three Northeast-based motor carriers with significant operations in the state have now followed through on their threat to stop the tolls with a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island.

The suit, filed by ATA along with co-plaintiffs Cumberland Farms, M&M Transport Services, and New England Motor Freight, name Peter Alviti Jr. in his official capacity as the director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT). It alleges that the state has discriminated against interstate trucking companies and violated the Commerce Clause, which regulates interstate commerce.

“This toll regime was designed to, and does in fact, impose discriminatory and disproportionate burdens on out-of-state operators and on truckers who are operating in interstate commerce. By design, the tolls fall exclusively on the types of trucks that are most likely to be engaged in the interstate transport of cargo, while exempting automobiles and the smaller vehicles that are relatively more likely to be engaged in intrastate travel. The toll program also limits the tolls collected from trucks that make multiple trips within Rhode Island in a single day, a feature that was expressly intended to, and does in fact, provide disproportionate benefits to Rhode Island operators and those engaged in intrastate commerce,” the suit alleges.

“Since RhodeWorks was first proposed, the trucking industry has been strong and united in opposition to this extortionate plan. We’ve warned politicians in Rhode Island that these truck-only tolls were unconstitutional and should be rolled back,” Chris Spear, ATA president and CEO, said in a statement.  “It is unfortunate that Governor Raimondo and her administration did not heed those warnings, but now we will see them in court.”

The tolls were developed as part of Rhode Island’s RhodeWorks program. RI officials believe that tolling trucks was one way to help repair the state’s failing infrastructure.

“The tolls collected at each location in Rhode Island will go to repair the bridge or bridge group associated with that toll location,” RIDOT said. “The rationale behind the RhodeWorks tolling program was to toll the vehicles that caused the damage that needs to be repaired.”

No other vehicles in the state are responsible for paying tolls. The tolls will fund a $5 billion infrastructure plan. Truck tolls would cover about 10% of the total costs, reports WPRI-TV. There are two toll gantries in operation in Southern Rhode Island with 12 additional locations to be constructed over the next 18 months. The cost will range from $2 to $9.50. Tolls are collected only “once per day, per direction,” with a $20 per day cap, RIDOT said.

“The lawsuit details with great clarity how Governor (Gina) Raimondo’s RhodeWorks truck-only scheme is a blatant violation of multiple constitutional provisions designed to protect interstate commerce,” Chris Maxwell, president of the Rhode Island Trucking Association (RITA), said at a press conference in Providence.

RITA, an affiliate member of ATA, is not a party to the lawsuit.

“You can’t take the free interstate and pervert it or manipulate for your own personal gain or your state’s gain,” Maxwell added.

“This is a lawsuit we expected,” RIDOT spokeswoman Lisbeth Pettengill said in a statement. “We are prepared to defend the tractor trailer truck only tolling program and have been prepared to do so for three years. We are confident that we will prevail.”

The suit goes on to attack the toll program, saying that it does not approximate motorists’ use of the roads.

“This toll regime was designed to, and does in fact, impose discriminatory and disproportionate burdens on out-of-state operators and on truckers who are operating in interstate commerce” the suit stated. “By design, the tolls fall exclusively on the types of trucks that are most likely to be engaged in the interstate transport of cargo, while exempting automobiles and the smaller vehicles that are relatively more likely to be engaged in intrastate travel,” the complaint said. “The toll program also limits the tolls collected from trucks that make multiple trips within Rhode Island in a single day, a feature that was expressly intended to, and does in fact, provide disproportionate benefits to Rhode Island operators and those engaged in intrastate commerce.”

 “From the outset of this debate, Rhode Island’s trucking industry and business community stepped forward as viable partners for long-overdue infrastructure investment in our state,” Maxwell said. “Instead of considering our perspective, Rhode Island’s legislators, led by Governor Raimondo and Speaker (Nick) Mattiello (R), marginalized us, dismissed us and chose the unfortunate path of designing, building and executing an unlawful and inequitable scheme of truck-only tolling.  The result is this lawsuit.”       

In a “consumer alert” sent out earlier this year, RITA claimed that 94% of the tolls would be paid by Rhode Island-based trucking companies, which would raise the costs of goods for consumers as shipping costs rise.

Cumberland Farms is a convenience store chain with its own private fleet of vehicles. In a statement, the company reiterated the constitutional concerns. “These new truck tolls raise important constitutional questions, which deserve their day in court. Cumberland Farms respectfully disagrees with the administration’s perspective here, and now both sides will receive a fair hearing before a neutral judge,” it said.

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