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Court dismisses carrier lawsuit against Rhode Island truck tolling

Photo Credit: Rhode Island DOT

A federal judge ruled that his court lacks jurisdiction to hear a lawsuit brought by three carriers and the American Trucking Associations (ATA) against Rhode Island’s truck-only tolling program.

ATA and co-plaintiffs Cumberland Farms, M&M Transport Services and New England Motor Freight had alleged in the suit, filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island, that the Rhode Island Department of Transportation’s (RIDOT) RhodeWorks tolls, implemented in June 2018, discriminate 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,” the carrier group alleged in their lawsuit, filed in July.

But federal judge William Smith agreed with defendant Peter Alviti, in his capacity as director of RIDOT, that the tolls actually constitute a “tax” under the state’s Tax Injunction Act (TIA), and therefore the federal court lacks jurisdiction.

“Although not referred to as ‘taxes’ in the authorizing legislation, the tolls were enacted with the express intention of raising revenues to cover a long-standing infrastructure ‘funding gap,’” Smith stated in his opinion, which was issued on March 19. The tolls are expected to raise $500 million over 10 years. While the fees in this case are dubbed ‘tolls,’ they “are really a highly targeted and sophisticated tax designed to fund infrastructure maintenance and improvements that would otherwise need to be paid for by other forms of tax-generated revenue,” Smith stated. “As such, the court is without jurisdiction under the TIA.” The case should therefore be heard in Rhode Island’s state courts, he noted.

ATA Deputy General Counsel Rich Pianka was disappointed in the district court ruling in ATA’s challenge to Rhode Island’s “discriminatory” truck-only toll program. “ATA is reviewing the decision and considering next steps, but looks forward to vindicating its underlying claims on the merits, whatever the venue,” Pianka said in a statement.

Tolling plans are receiving push-back from the trucking industry as states become more open to initiating tolling as a means of raising revenue to maintain and expand highway infrastructure, alleging that commercial trucking takes on an unfair amount of the cost burden.

In nearby Connecticut, the state’s trucking association is opposing a tolling plan formally proposed last month by Governor Ned Lamont that includes both cars and trucks.

John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.