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Court rules against Rhode Island’s truck-only toll program

A federal judge has ruled that Rhode Island’s truck-only “RhodeWorks” tolling program to pay for upgrading highway bridges across the state discriminates against heavy trucks and ordered the state to stop charging truckers under the system.

“Rhode Island has a legitimate — even compelling — interest in the maintenance of its ailing bridges,” wrote Rhode Island Federal District Court Judge William Smith in an order handed down Wednesday.

“But there is no reason that interest cannot be served by a tolling system that does not offend the Commerce Clause. 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.”

The American Trucking Associations, which sued the state when the program was enacted in 2018, applauded the decision.

“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. “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.”

RhodeWorks was created by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation as a way to pay for a group of the state’s ailing bridges. The Federal Highway Administration ranked the state number one in 2021 for most structurally deficient bridges.

The program’s toll scheme assesses single-user fees on truck drivers in varying amounts for traversing specific bridges, which accrue until a driver crosses a particular tolled bridge more than once in a single day or reaches $40 in total bridge tolls in a single day.

It was supported by the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, which argued that heavy trucks were responsible for most of the damage done to the state’s bridges.

However, ATA and lawsuit partners Cumberland Farms Inc., M&M Transport Services Inc. and New England Motor Freight argued that the scheme not only unfairly charges trucks versus passenger cars for road use, but it discriminates against trucks registered out of state that also tend to be larger and heavier than those traveling within the state’s borders.

“The discriminatory effects shown by plaintiffs are not merely hypothetical,” according to the court. “The structure of the RhodeWorks tolls with their attendant caps ensures that the financial impact falls more heavily on large commercial trucks traveling primarily in interstate commerce than on similar local trucks.”

The decision could also have a chilling effect on other states considering such programs. Connecticut, which had considered highway funding programs that included truck-only tolling, more recently opted against it.

“This is a tremendous day for our industry — not just here in Rhode Island but across the country,” commented Rhode Island Trucking Association President Chris Maxwell. “Had we not prevailed, these tolls would have spread across the country, and this ruling sends a strong signal to other states that trucking is not to be targeted as a piggy bank.”

In addition to ruling the RhodeWorks plan unconstitutional, the court also ordered that, 48 hours after ruling, the state’s transportation department was “permanently [prohibited] from charging or collecting tolls …. or from enforcing nonpayment of such tolls through penalty for nonpayment or avoidance.”

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.