Federal judge dismisses truck-toll suit

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit filed by the trucking industry against Rhode Island’s nascent truck-toll system, saying the case should be brought in the state court system rather than the federal judiciary.

The decision is a victory for Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration, which had asked for the dismissal, though it’s possible the legal battle will now continue with an appeal or a new case at the state level.

The toll program is a central pillar of Raimondo’s RhodeWorks infrastructure plan, a 10-year effort to do nearly $5 billion of bridge and road work, funded in part by new tolls on large commercial trucks.

U.S. District Chief Judge William Smith wrote in his decision, “the facts are clear that 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.”

Therefore, Smith said, his analysis of the law indicates his court is “without jurisdiction” and the toll program is a state-level matter, meaning “the federal case must be dismissed and ultimately heard in the courts of Rhode Island.”

The RhodeWorks law passed in early 2016, but the first two toll gantries did not go live until last June. The American Trucking Associations filed suit a month later, arguing the tolls unfairly target large commercial tractor-trailers.

“Truck tolls are a key way to ensure that the vehicles causing the most damage to our roads help contribute to their repairs, and the court made the right decision in dismissing this suit,” said Josh Block, a spokesperson for Raimondo. He also said the governor’s administration is “making record investments to repair Rhode Island’s infrastructure.”

Chris Maxwell, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Trucking Association, downplayed the ruling.

“Nothing in Judge Smith’s decision speaks to the merits of our claims, only the venue in which we need to bring them,” he said.

The national group and its attorneys will now need to decide how to proceed, Maxwell added.

R.I. Department of Transportation officials have said the first two gantries are beating their expectations so far, though the delayed rollout of the full fleet of 14 planned gantries means less revenue has been coming in than initially expected. Another 10 gantries are supposed to start coming online starting as soon as May.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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