Citing statements by state leaders that the system of truck tolls now under construction is designed to disproportionately place the cost of bridge repairs on trucks passing through the state and not the locals, the Rhode Island Truckers Association is sounding confident it will win an injunction ending tolls of tractor trailers and a revenue stream to help fund the state’s RhodeWorks program.
Last week, after the state abandoned its effort to have the truckers’ case heard in the state courts on the basis that the tolls are a state tax, rather than a fee, the American Truckers Association representing the state organization filed for the injunction in U.S. District Court in Providence.
In the opinion of Chris Maxwell, president of the RI Truckers Association, the prolonged legal dance over whether the state or the federal courts had jurisdiction was designed to buy time so that the state could proceed with the erection of toll gantries and collect tolls. So far, according to the state Department of Transportation, six of the 12 gantries are up and the full system is to be completed by this June. Since July 2018 when the first gantry became operational through February of this year, the state has collected more than $14 million in tolls.
Even should the court find the tolls unconstitutional, as the truckers argue, Maxwell doesn’t see the outcome as a win. With the gantries in place and the loss a source of revenue to help sustain the $2 billion RhodeWorks program, he reasons the state will move to broaden tolling to all vehicles even though legislators attempted to make that impossible when they approved the truck tolls.
As spelled out in the lengthy writ, tenants to the truckers’ argument that the tolls violate the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause are:
l That Rhode Island expressly designed the tolls to discriminate against interstate commerce, structuring them so that they would fall disproportionately on out-of-state and interstate truckers, while sparing in-state users of the tolled facilities.
l That the tolls discriminate against interstate commerce in their practical operation, as state officials intended and as a study conducted by the state itself confirms.
l And that the tolls depart from the constitutional requirements that user fees fairly approximate use of the tolled facility and not be excessive in light of the benefits conferred.
Reached Friday morning at an event at Warwick Police headquarters promoting safe driving over St. Patrick’s Day, RIDOT Director Peter Alviti referred all questions concerning the trucker’s suit to the attorney general’s office. A spokeswoman for the attorney general said there was no comment at this time.
As for the current status of the $6.5 billion RhodeWorks program, Alviti said it is on schedule and under budget. In a follow-up email from his department, a spokesman for the DOT noted that Gov. Gina Raimondo, in her state of the state address, said, “We’ve completed more than 100 road and bridge projects and we’re working on 100 more.”
Maxwell argues state officials have made the case for the truckers with their admission that the tolls are designed to hit out-of-state trucks passing through the state while giving a break to in-state trucks.
“State officials chose to finance RhodeWorks through truck tolls with the express goal of shift[ing] a segment of the cost of the RhodeWorks project onto semi-tractor trailer trucks that pass through the state without stopping,” reads the complaint, quoting “The Economic Impact of Rhodeworks: An Accelerated Transportation Restoration Plan, Regional Economics Models, Inc.” from October 2015.
Quoting an article from the Providence Journal published on Oct. 29 2015, the complaint reads: “Governor Gina Raimondo therefore candidly stated that ‘[t]he reason I prefer the tolling proposal is because the majority of the burden is on out-of-state truckers and out-of-state companies who are using – and I would say abusing – our roads.’”
The complaint goes on to quote House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello from a Providence Business News article in which he is quoted as saying the RhodeWorks tolls were structured so that “a lot of the burden for the repair of our bridges, overpasses and infrastructure is passed on to out-of-state truckers.”
The truckers allege that state officials “designed the RhodeWorks toll caps specifically so as to impose a disproportionately heavy burden on out-of-state and interstate truckers. As a general matter, flat fees for the use of a state’s roads have the inevitable effect of imposing a lower effective per-mile charge on intrastate than on interstate users.”
The truckers concede there is little chance of being reimbursed should they win the case.