A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Rhode Island’s truck tolling system must end within 48 hours, saying the program to fund repairs to the state’s bridges discriminates against out-of-state truckers and is unconstitutional.
The RhodeWorks tolling system was begun in 2018 to create a funding stream for repairs to about 650 bridges in the state that were either structurally deficient or close to becoming structurally deficient. But U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith wrote the system aimed at commercial tractor-trailers "was enacted with a discriminatory purpose."
Smith's 91-page ruling said the system violated a clause of the U.S. Constitution that bars states from passing legislation that discriminates against or excessively burdens interstate commerce. He wrote that an injunction to end the program "shall take effect 48 hours following entry of final judgment."
The trucking industry filed a court challenge against the system in 2018, saying in part it discriminated against out-of-state economic interests in order to favor in-state interests. The state held the legal position that the federal court cannot restrain the collection of state taxes, such as tolls, and state matters should be adjudicated in state court.
"We told Rhode Island’s leaders from the start that their crazy scheme was not only discriminatory, but illegal," said Chris Spear, president and chief executive of the American Trucking Associations, in a statement Wednesday. "We’re pleased the court agreed."
The other plaintiffs were Cumberland Farms Inc., M&M Transport Services Inc. and New England Motor Freight.
The state has collected about $101 million in tolls since 2018, including nearly $40 million during the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to a state Transportation Department. Tolls are collected electronically via gantries spanning the state’s major highways.
The decision sets a standard that prevents other states from setting up similar tolling systems, said 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," he said.
Former Gov. Gina Raimondo signed the bill authorizing the tolls in 2016, and the state began collecting them in 2018. Raimondo justified tolling trucks, saying big rigs caused the most damage to roads.
The state is considering its options, according to a statement from the office of current Democratic Gov. Dan McKee. But the administration reiterated that it is not considering tolling passenger vehicles.
"As this ruling has just come out, our team is reviewing the decision and evaluating next steps," the statement said.
The suit was at first dismissed by a federal district court which said it lacked jurisdiction and the case should be heard in state court. But t he 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2020 reversed the lower court ruling, sending it back to district court.