ATA pushing ahead against Rhode Island truck tolling

Following a favorable appeals court decision this week, the American Trucking Associations (ATA) will resume its fight in a lower court against monthly tolls totaling in some cases more than $1.5 million, collected from carriers hauling freight in and through Rhode Island.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit on Monday denied a petition by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) asking for a review of the court’s earlier decision in favor of ATA.

The appeals court in December had granted ATA, along with Cumberland Farms, M&M Transport Services and New England Motor Freight (which was broken up following bankruptcy in February 2019), a reversal of a federal district court decision last year dismissing their lawsuit against Rhode Island’s truck-only tolling program, which began collecting tolls in July 2018. The district court judge had ruled that his court lacked jurisdiction in the matter.

“Now that the court of appeals has rejected Rhode Island’s desperate attempt to further delay full hearing of this case, we look forward to proceeding with litigating the merits of our challenge to the state’s discriminatory truck-only toll scheme,” according to a statement from ATA.

An attorney representing ATA added that “because there’s an urgent need to stop the collection of the tolls which is burdening the industry on a daily basis, we intend to go full steam ahead in the district court.”

The state has the option of seeking a stay while it petitions the U.S. Supreme Court for a review of the appeals court decision, according to legal sources. An attorney for the state did not respond for comment.

Rhode Island’s truck-only tolling plan is part of a 10-year, $4.7 billion investment program passed in 2016 called RhodeWorks. State officials believed tolling trucks was a way to help repair the state’s failing infrastructure, particularly deficient bridges. Rhode Island claims to rank last among the 50 states in bridge conditions.

Traffic and revenue summary for Rhode Island’s truck tolls.
Source: RhodeWorks

The 14 toll gantries included in the initial plan were scaled down to 12. During fiscal year 2018-19 (July to June), the first two toll gantries erected averaged 182,000 separate transactions per month for average monthly billable collections of roughly $600,000.

Four more gantries were built between August 2019 and January 2020, which have boosted total average monthly transactions to 250,000 and monthly collections to $920,000. Over $1.5 million was collected in February alone. The remaining six gantry locations have yet to be completed. 

“The tolls collected at each location in Rhode Island will go to repair the bridge or bridge group associated with that toll location,” according to RIDOT. “The rationale behind the RhodeWorks tolling program was to toll the vehicles that caused the damage that needs to be repaired.”

ATA and its partners allege, however, that the state is discriminating against interstate trucking companies and violating the Commerce Clause, which regulates interstate commerce.

“By design, the tolls fall exclusively on the types of trucks that are most likely to be engaged in the interstate transport of cargo, while exempting automobiles and the smaller vehicles that are relatively more likely to be engaged in intrastate travel,” they asserted in their original lawsuit.

In a decision welcomed by ATA, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont recently took off the table a similar truck tolling plan in the works for the past two years in that state.

“Targeting a tiny sliver of road users, and an industry that is the central link in the economy’s supply chain, is not a serious nor sustainable strategy,” ATA President and CEO Chris Spear said in statement following Connecticut’s decision.

“Trucks account for only four percent of vehicles on the road, yet our industry already pays half the entire federal Highway Trust Fund user tab. And while we’re willing to pay more to get the job done, the trucking industry will fight tooth and nail against any proposal that aims to turn trucks into rolling piggy banks.”