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Rhode Island stops truck tolls after judge rules system unconstitutional, discriminatory

Tolls on trucks aimed to raise revenue for bridge repairs, deemed unfair to out-of-state businesses

<p>U.S. District Judge William Smith’s ruling specifically cites the legal doctrine of the Dormant Commerce Clause, which effectively prevents states from discriminating against interstate commerce, or imposing undue burdens on it. </p>

U.S. District Judge William Smith’s ruling specifically cites the legal doctrine of the Dormant Commerce Clause, which effectively prevents states from discriminating against interstate commerce, or imposing undue burdens on it. 

Rhode Island has shut off its network of truck tolls after a district judge ruled that the program was unconstitutional Wednesday.

In the ruling, U.S. District Judge William Smith wrote that the system — which levies tolls on truckers passing through certain Rhode Island bridges to raise funding for repairing those same bridges through the RhodeWorks program — violated the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause by discriminating against out-of-state vehicles. On the night that the ruling was issued, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation shut off the tolls, WPRI reported.

RhodeWorks, a $4.7 billion, 10-year program signed into law in 2016, aimed to fix the state’s roads and bridges, which in 2021 were ranked among the worst in the nation. But the truck tolls used to generate revenue met legal opposition from the American Trucking Association in 2018, along with Cumberland Farms and other businesses. Smith singled out Cumberland Farms in his ruling, noting that their operating costs have increased by roughly $100,000 due to the tolls.

“We told Rhode Island’s leaders from the start that their crazy scheme was not only discriminatory but illegal,” said ATA President and CEO Chris Spear in a statement provided to The Herald by the Rhode Island Trucking Association. 

“Had we not prevailed, these tolls would have spread across the country,” said Chris Maxwell, RITA president, in the statement. (The) ruling sends a strong signal to other states that trucking is not to be targeted as a piggy bank.”

Truck tolls provided roughly $40 million in net revenue each year, according to RIDOT Director Peter Alviti in an interview on WPRO provided to The Herald by RIDOT spokesperson Charles St. Martin. With that money matched and multiplied by the federal government, along with other funding, RhodeWorks has a budget totaling more than $700 million, Alviti said in the interview. This allowed them to fix more than 250 bridges that were previously considered “structurally deficient from a safety standpoint,” Alviti said.

“There were a lot of people that agreed that this was a sensible, logical and feasible way to do it,” he said in the interview. While more than half of RIDOT’s budget comes from federal funds, those funds come with the condition that they are only 80% of the total expenditures on a given project, with states providing the other 20%.

Rhode Island can appeal the ruling within 30 days of the original decision, depending on what Alviti, Gov. Dan McKee and state legislators decide, Alviti said in the WPRO interview. Rhode Island does not need to repay the funds it gathered from the tolls, he added.

“As this ruling has just come out, our team is reviewing the decision and evaluating next steps,” said Matt Sheaff, a spokesperson for McKee, in a statement Wednesday. Sheaff confirmed in an email to The Herald that the state has not yet filed an appeal. 

“We still have a good case, and we are discussing with our attorneys and with the governor and the Senate president and (the) speaker how to go forward,” Alviti said in the WPRO interview. 

Smith’s ruling specifically cites the legal doctrine of the Dormant Commerce Clause, which effectively prevents states from discriminating against interstate commerce, or imposing undue burdens on it. By only tolling heavier trucks, which were less likely to be from Rhode Island, the state is “placing the lion’s share of the tolling burden on out-of-state large commercial trucks and protecting Rhode Island commercial interests as much as possible,” Smith’s decision said.

“This was not a close call from the judge’s decision,” said Robert Hackey, adjunct professor in public policy, in an interview with The Herald. “It was a bodyslam for the state.”

“They were trying to export a lot of the costs of rebuilding our roads and bridges to businesses, namely truckers, who didn’t live here,” Hackey added. “The virtue of this policy was beautiful politically.”

Historically, Rhode Island has relied upon voter-approved bonds instead of statewide appropriations for infrastructure work, Hackey said — which made the prospect of a continuous stream of revenue from the tolls appealing to the state. 

Regardless of what the appeals process brings, the state will need to find funding for RhodeWorks in the interim, Hackey said. Alviti noted in the WPRO interview that, while all projects currently underway will continue, the state might “delay” or “modify scope” on other projects.

Rhode Island is projected to finish  the fiscal year 2021-22 with an $878 million surplus, according to state budget officer Joe Codega. To cover the costs of ongoing road infrastructure, the state could also pull additional funds from elsewhere in the budget, Alviti added.  

McKee has explicitly ruled out levying a toll on passenger vehicles, Sheaff said in his statement.

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Will Kubzansky

Will Kubzansky is a University News editor who oversees the admission & financial aid and staff & student labor beat. In his free time, he plays the guitar and soccer — both poorly.



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