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Rhode Island truck-only tolls a key battleground going into 2021: ATA’s Spear

Photo: ATA

The battle over truck-only tolls in Rhode Island is one of the most significant political fights the trucking association will continue to face in the coming year, according to the head of the industry’s largest trade association.

Chris Spear, the CEO of the American Trucking Associations, said Monday in a webcast address as part of the group’s virtual annual meeting that rolling back the tolls is a “must win” for the industry. 

Spear noted that the tolls on Interstate 95, which he said can be crossed border to border in Rhode Island in 40 minutes, may not seem like a big deal. “But if this case is lost, you will see it in Connecticut, Wyoming, New York and Indiana.” 

“It could be in your backyard,” Spear said during a question-and-answer session following his prepared address. In every state looking for a “funding scheme,” leaders will look to the legality of the Rhode Island system and put in a truck-only toll system in their own jurisdictions.  

The lawsuit brought by ATA and others against the Rhode Island tolls may go to trial early next year, Spear said. A request for an injunction against the tolls was recently denied. 

Spear urged the ATA’s members to donate to the group’s litigation center to help fund the fight against the Rhode Island tolls. “It’s very important we win this case,” he said.

The remarks Spear made about Rhode Island in his prepared address came right after he talked about the prospect for a major infrastructure funding bill that might be passed by the next Congress along with whoever is sitting in the White House. “Success [for the infrastructure bill] depends most on how infrastructure is funded, and it cannot and will not be done via truck-only tolls,” he said. 

To drive home the importance of the case in the Ocean State, Spear said the help of the ATA’s members was needed to prevent “the anticipated surge of flawed federal and state funding schemes [that] rests in Rhode Island.”

Spear also discussed what he described as ATA victories in tort reform in Louisiana, Iowa and Missouri. Those victories, he said, dealt “countless blows to the plaintiffs’ bar on issues ranging from seat belt gag rules to phantom damages.” The seat belt gag rule prohibits juries from knowing whether a victim in an accident was wearing a seat belt.

The ATA CEO referred to trial lawyers as “this parasitic profession.” 

Asked during the question-and-answer session about the upcoming election, Spear played it down the middle. “It’s important we have the ability to get outcomes on your behalf and we are working with both campaigns,” he said. Regardless of the victor, infrastructure “could be the first bill out of the gate ih 2021,” Spear said. 

In other remarks, Spear said:

— The ATA, in response to the pandemic, had cut its cots 16%. Despite the difficult operating environment, the association expects to end the year “in the black.”

— Another key issue for the coming year will be minimum insurance levels.

— The Moving & Storage Association has come back under the umbrella of the ATA. During the Q&A, Spear was asked whether the issues of the two organizations overlap. He said that “by and large” the two groups were aligned on most issues, such as taxes, trade and infrastructure. But the organizations will “start delving down into some of the more granular issues.”

— Having created a new Workforce Development Policy Committee to address issues of industry diversity, the ATA plans on creating a new Law Enforcement Advisory Committee. “This new advisory committee will help improve our efforts to combat cargo theft, fraud and defeating the scourge of human trafficking,” Spear said. 

Prior to Spear’s address, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao gave brief remarks in which she praised truck driver efforts during the pandemic. “Your people are real American heroes,” Chao said.

She also gave an inventory of the steps she said DOT has taken to allow easier movement of goods during the pandemic. Among those cited were waivers for license issues and learner permits and waivers of other rules. She also cited the changes in hours of service announced in May, but the process toward implementing those was well underway by the time the pandemic hit. 

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John Kingston

John has an almost 40-year career covering commodities, most of the time at S&P Global Platts. He created the Dated Brent benchmark, now the world’s most important crude oil marker. He was Director of Oil, Director of News, the editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News and the “talking head” for Platts on numerous media outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business and Canada’s BNN. He covered metals before joining Platts and then spent a year running Platts’ metals business as well. He was awarded the International Association of Energy Economics Award for Excellence in Written Journalism in 2015. In 2010, he won two Corporate Achievement Awards from McGraw-Hill, an extremely rare accomplishment, one for steering coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the other for the launch of a public affairs television show, Platts Energy Week.