In Latest Turn, Federal Judges Dismisses Challenge To Rhode Island Truck Tolls | Connecticut Public Radio
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In Latest Turn, Federal Judges Dismisses Challenge To Rhode Island Truck Tolls

Mar 20, 2019

A federal judge moved this week to dismiss a lawsuit challenging Rhode Island’s truck-only tolling arrangement. The state’s legislature decided in 2016 to institute tolls, but just for trucks and only at certain spots on Interstate 95. Singling out trucks is a position that gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont also took while on the campaign trail -- only to reverse himself and back universal tolling after he was elected.

Lamont said he believes truck-only tolling won’t provide the money needed to upgrade the state’s infrastructure. And in a statement released Wednesday in response to the ruling, his office reiterated another point: neighboring Rhode Island’s decision to only toll trucks is still likely to spend a long time bogged down in the courts.

The American Trucking Associations and other industry groups brought the suit against the Ocean State’s policy. Arguing truck-only tolling violates the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, because Rhode Island discriminates in favor of in-state truckers while singling out the bigger trucks typically engaged state-to-state business.

But in a decision released Tuesday, federal Judge William Smith agreed with lawyers for the state of Rhode Island, saying the tolls are, essentially state taxes -- and, therefore, out of the court’s jurisdiction.

“The fees, while dubbed ‘tolls,’ are really a highly targeted and sophisticated tax designed to fund infrastructure maintenance and improvements that would otherwise need to be paid for by other forms of tax-generated revenue,” Smith wrote.

“As such, the Court is without jurisdiction,” Smith continued. “The federal case must be dismissed and ultimately heard in the courts of Rhode Island.”

Whether that will happen is the next big question in this case.

“We were surprised that the district court decided it was without power to hear our challenge,” said Rich Pianka, a lawyer with the American Trucking Associations, a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Pianka said the federal judge didn’t rule against the merits of the ATA’s argument. And confirmed that the ATA is considering its options, which at this point include appealing the decision in federal court, or re-filing the lawsuit at the state level.

“This is not going to be the last chapter in the case,” Pianka said. “We intend to pursue a decision on the merits of our underlying constitutional claims in one form or another.”

Rhode Island’s first truck-only toll gantries went up last June. So far, the Rhode Island DOT said they’ve been successful, pulling in about $600,000 per month.

In the coming months, the plan is to roll out more tolling spots.

And while officials in Rhode Island have said truck-only tolling is all that’s needed to get that state’s infrastructure up to snuff, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont has pushed for a wider toll revenue stream since getting off the campaign trail and taking over as governor this year. He wants to toll big trucks, and Lamont wants to toll cars, too.

On Wednesday, Lamont’s office greeted the latest turn in the Rhode Island case as an indication the ongoing court battle is likely to drag on beyond the timelines he would like to see for getting Connecticut’s tolling program up and running.

“The dismissal of this lawsuit confirms what we already believed to be true: The road to resolution of this case will be long and winding” said Maribel La Luz, Lamont’s director of Communications in a statement, “and ultimately, we don’t believe it will provide the clarity -- or revenue -- that Connecticut needs to truly enhance and upgrade its infrastructure system.”