PROVIDENCE — A federal judge on Wednesday said Rhode Island’s truck tolls violate the US Constitution, blocking the state from collecting or charging them.
US District Judge William Smith’s 91-page decision comes after a bench trial earlier this year. Smith wrote that the state’s truck tolls violated the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution. The McKee administration said in a statement that it is reviewing the decision, but does not support tolling passenger vehicles.
The governor’s office emphasized that the decision does not require repaying tolls that have already been paid. The state has collected $101 million since the tolling program launched in 2018, a state Department of Transportation spokesman said Wednesday.
The decision in the long-running legal battle between the trucking industry and the state casts into doubt a significant funding source for the state’s bridges, which have been consistently rated as among the worst in the nation, and delivers a major win for businesses that said the truck tolls would hurt the broader economy and their bottom lines.
To address its decrepit roads and bridges, the state came up with RhodeWorks, which became law in 2016. Under one part of the broader program, certain types of tractor-trailer trucks — but not smaller trucks or passenger vehicles — have had to pay between $2.25 to $9.50 to drive on Rhode Island highways. The first tolling gantries went live in June 2018, during former Governor Gina Raimondo’s administration. The state projected revenues of $45 million a year, which would be used to fund bridge repairs. The law also included a reorganization of the state Department of Transportation and accountability measures.
At the time, the state pegged the RhodeWorks budget at $4.9 billion over 10 years, a tenth of which would come from truck tolls.
“This plan had the obvious appeal of raising tens of millions of needed dollars from tractor trailers while leaving locals largely unaffected,” Smith wrote. “Until now.”
The American Trucking Associations joined together with Cumberland Farms and transportation providers, to sue the state over the tolls.
“We told Rhode Island’s leaders from the start that their crazy scheme was not only discriminatory, but illegal,” American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear said in an emailed statement Wednesday. “We’re pleased the court agreed. To any state looking to target our industry, you better bring your A-game… because we’re not rolling over.”
“Had we not prevailed, these tolls would have spread across the country,” Rhode Island Trucking Association President Chris Maxwell said in written statement. “This ruling sends a strong signal to other states that trucking is not to be targeted as a piggy bank.”
Smith’s injunction siding with the plaintiffs and blocking the tolls from being collected goes into effect in 48 hours. RIDOT spokesman Charles St. Martin confirmed the tolls would be turned off Wednesday.
“Because RhodeWorks fails to fairly apportion its tolls among bridge users based on a fair approximation of their use of the bridges, was enacted with a discriminatory purpose, and is discriminatory in effect, the statute’s tolling regime is unconstitutional under the dormant Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution,” Smith wrote.
Smith said RhodeWorks’ truck tolls are the first and only of their kind in the nation.
Under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, states can’t unduly restrict interstate commerce. That keeps national markets open and prevents states from passing protectionist laws. But that’s exactly what RhodeWorks’ truck tolls do, Smith said: The RhodeWorks legislation excluded lower-classed trucks to reduce the financial burden on in-state businesses, he said. Meanwhile trucks at Class 8 and above, which are more likely to be used for interstate travel and registered out of state, have to pay.
About 19 percent of tolled vehicles were registered in Rhode Island, compared with about 81 percent that are registered somewhere else, Smith’s decision said.
The trucking industry and Cumberland Farms “presented compelling evidence that the General Assembly sought to protect local businesses with its decision to toll only Class 8+ trucks,” Smith wrote.
According to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation website, there are 13 tolling locations in Rhode Island, 12 of which are live. They’re on Interstates 95, 195, and 295, and Routes 6 and 146. Each one is earmarked for specific bridge repairs, and if those are fully funded, the excess revenue can go to repair or replace other bridges, the DOT said. The state had argued that tolling tractor-trailers was fair because they did the most damage to the bridges the state needs to repair.
But they aren’t the only vehicles that do damage to bridges — in fact, the state’s own calculations show that it’s not charging tolls on vehicles that consume 30 percent of a bridge’s life, Smith found. That didn’t pass the fairness test when you’re trying to draw up user fees like tolls, he wrote. The state was exempting some trucks from paying tolls, but not others, even though they all did some form of damage.
“It was unreasonable for the State to exempt entire classes of similarly impactful vehicles,” Smith wrote.
The Newport Pell Bridge toll isn’t part of the truck tolling program that Smith’s decision blocks.
The decision raises questions about how the state will fund these repairs. But Governor Dan McKee’s administration said it will not support tolling passenger vehicles.
“We want to very clear: the Governor and his Administration do not support and would not implement a tolling program on passenger vehicles,” Matt Sheaff, a spokesman, said in a written statement. “As this ruling has just come out, our team is reviewing the decision and evaluating next steps.”
Assembly leaders also were reviewing Smith’s decision Wednesday.
“We just learned about the ruling in the long-running litigation process resulting from the 2016 legislation. The General Assembly prohibited the tolling of passenger cars, and regardless of the eventual outcome of this lawsuit, that will not change,” Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio said in a written statement.
Lisbeth Pettengill, a spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, said in an email that the state paid vendor Kapsch TrafficCom nearly $69 million to design, build and operate the system.
“With the suspension, we are no longer obligated to Kapsch,” Pettengill said.