Rhode Island tolls spur trucking industry lawsuit

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The American Trucking Associations and three motor carriers representing the industry are suing Rhode Island, calling the state's truck-only toll plan unconstitutional.

In its suit, filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island, the ATA said the so-called RhodeWorks initiative discriminates against interstate trucking companies and impedes interstate commerce flow. It seeks monetary damages and "any other relief from the plaintiffs that the court deems proper."

Cumberland Farms Inc., M&M Transport Services Inc. and New England Motor Freight joined the lawsuit, which names state transportation Director Peter Alviti Jr. as a defendant.

The tolls, which Rhode Island authorized as part of Gov. Gina Raimondo's 10-year, $5 billion RhodeWorks program to fund bridge maintenance and repair, have recently taken effect at two locations on north-south Interstate 95. Raimondo signed the measure in February 2016, shortly after lawmakers passed it.

Rhode Island, which projects the tolling program to cover 10% of the cost, has authorized tolls at 10 additional locations on I-95 and other Rhode Island bridges and highways.

"The majority of the burden is on out-of-state truckers and out-of-state companies," Raimondo said while lobbying for its passage.

State officials at the time projected $45 million per year from the truck tolls, with an estimated 60% of that from out-of-state trucks. The trucking industry accused Raimondo's administration of overstating the revenue.

Automobiles, smaller trucks, buses and other vehicles are not subject to tolls on these roads. Rhode Island's Department of Transportation contracted with Kapsch TrafficCom to design, build, operate and maintain the electronic tolling system.

“Since RhodeWorks was first proposed, the trucking industry has been strong and united in opposition to this extortionate plan. We’ve warned politicians in Rhode Island that these truck-only tolls were unconstitutional and should be rolled back,” said ATA president and chief executive Chris Spear.

“It is unfortunate that Gov. Raimondo and her administration did not heed those warnings, but now we will see them in court.”

In its suit, ATA and its three co-plaintiffs argue argues that RhodeWorks violates the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause by discriminating against out-of-state trucking companies, and by making the tolls disproportionate to motorists’ use of the roads.

"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," the lawsuit said.

"The toll program also limits the tolls collected from trucks that make multiple trips within Rhode Island in a single day, a feature that was expressly intended to, and does in fact, provide disproportionate benefits to Rhode Island operators and those engaged in intrastate commerce."

Higgins, Cavanagh and Cooney LLP of Providence, R.I., and Mayer Brown LLP of Washington are representing the plaintiffs.

Rhode Island DOT said in a statement that it expected the lawsuit.

"We are prepared to defend the tractor trailer truck only tolling program and have been prepared to do so for three years. We are confident that we will prevail. ... Pending resolution of this legal matter in court, we have no further comment."

In a Bond Buyer interview in 2015, Raimondo cited architectural studies that called Rhode Island's bridges the nation's worst.

"If a bridge collapses, how will that help the trucking industry?" she said. "If there are a lot of detours, how will that help the trucking industry? If drivers are blowing out tires, and we know they're expensive, how will that affect the trucking industry?"

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Transportation industry Lawsuits Gina Raimondo State of Rhode Island Rhode Island