PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Lawyers for the state are making another attempt to convince the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to send a challenge against Rhode Island’s truck toll program to the state court system.
The R.I. Department of Transportation on Thursday asked the entire 1st Circuit to hear arguments over the toll program, which is being challenged by the trucking industry. Rhode Island U.S. District Judge William Smith dismissed the industry’s suit in March, but last month a three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit reversed his decision.
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.
The two sides have been skirmishing over whether the legal challenge should be taking place in state court, as the Raimondo administration wants, or federal court, where the trucking industry has brought its suit. The central legal question has been whether tolls fall under the definition of “taxes,” which would remove it from the federal judiciary’s purview.
“As we state in our petition, we believe the panel’s decision in this case departed from 1st Circuit precedent interpreting the Tax Injunction Act,” said Kristy dosReis, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, which is leading the defense. “We are asking that the entire 1st Circuit consider hearing the case on this issue because we felt it was important to seek clarification on the jurisdictional issue.”
But Chris Maxwell, president of the Rhode Island Trucking Association, accused state leaders of “using every conceivable delay tactic” to keep the issue out of the federal courts.
“For over four years, they have assured taxpayers and voters that their plan is rock solid and will past muster in terms of its legality and constitutionality, yet they continue to turtle when it comes to their case being heard in the federal court,” Maxwell said in a statement.
Maxwell suggested Raimondo may be trying to buy time either to make the toll gantries a fait accompli or to help her Connecticut counterpart, Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont, as he urges his legislature to enact its own truck-only tolling regime.
“Either way, we are being tolled and damaged, perhaps illegally, and simply want this thing resolved win, lose, or draw,” Maxwell said.
The R.I. Department of Transportation is currently operating five of 12 planned gantries following the activation of a fifth location, at the Leigh Road Bridge on I-295 in Cumberland, last month.
While the agency and its contractor have fallen behind schedule in installing additional gantries, RIDOT officials have insisted the program will still bring in the entire $25 million projected in the state budget by June 30.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook