PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A federal judge on Wednesday sided with the trucking industry in a long-running lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Rhode Island’s new network of truck tolls, delivering a major blow to the state’s policy on transportation funding.
In a 91-page decision issued at 11 a.m., U.S. District Judge William Smith said the tolling program violated the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause as well as federal law. He said the state is “permanently enjoined from charging or collecting tolls … or from enforcing nonpayment of such tolls through penalty” 48 hours from release of his decision.
“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,” Smith wrote.
The R.I. Department of Transportation had shut off the truck tolls by shortly after 7 p.m. on Wednesday in order to comply with the ruling, according to Matt Sheaff, a spokesperson for Gov. Dan McKee. State officials have yet to indicate whether they plan to file an appeal.
Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, hailed the judge’s ruling.
“We told Rhode Island’s leaders from the start that their crazy scheme was not only discriminatory, but illegal,” Spear said in a statement. “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.”
The truck tolls were a linchpin of then-Gov. Gina Raimondo’s RhodeWorks transportation funding plan, enacted in 2016, which sought to improve the condition of Rhode Island’s worst-in-the-nation bridges. The tolling program specifically levied charges on heavy trucks at multiple locations.
American Trucking Associations, Cumberland Farms and other businesses filed suit in 2018, arguing that it was unconstitutional for the state to single out one class of vehicles and exempt others. Raimondo insisted at the time that her administration had commissioned a legal analysis showing it was legal.
Smith initially dismissed the suit in 2019, but his decision was reversed by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later that year, which eventually led to a trial this spring that resulted in Wednesday’s ruling.
Smith said his legal analysis “concludes that the General Assembly enacted the program with a discriminatory purpose and that the program indeed does discriminate in effect.”
As an example, Smith pointed to Cumberland Farms, which is based in Massachusetts but told the court its operating costs have increased by roughly $100,000 a year due to the Rhode Island tolls. He also said the state provided no evidence any other state has a similar tolling system limited to large trucks.
“This plan had the obvious appeal of raising tens of millions of needed dollars from tractor trailers while leaving locals largely unaffected,” the judge wrote.
The first two locations began collecting tolls from trucks in June 2018, and there are now 12 gantries up and running on Rhode Island highways. The state reported 10.3 million toll transactions during the 2021-22 fiscal year that ended on June 30, generating $39.8 million in revenue.
The truck tolls have brought in a grand total of just under $100 million since they began operating, even as the program’s annual revenue has yet to meet the original goal of $45 million a year.
Toll revenue still makes up a relatively small share of RIDOT’s entire annual budget, which is $797 million this year. More than half of that spending is federally funded.
“One might even go so far as to say that the state should want a ruling on the constitutionality of RhodeWorks and ought to be reluctant to use procedural sleights of hand to deflect or delay such a ruling,” Smith wrote. “After all, if the RhodeWorks scheme violates the Commerce Clause, as it does, the state should want to stop the improper tolling and fix the problem.”
Rich Pianka, general counsel for the American Trucking Association, said Smith’s ruling “vindicates” the argument made by his group “that the Constitution prohibits states from tolling schemes targeted at the trucking industry, at the expense of interstate commerce.”
Reginald Goeke, another lawyer for the trucking group, told 12 News that the industry can’t sue the state to get back the toll money that has already been paid.
“But we did want to stop it from continuing,” he said.
McKee — who supported the truck tolls in 2016 and succeeded Raimondo last year — said last month he planned to continue the program. However, state leaders have long insisted that they would not expand the tolling network to passenger vehicles regardless of the lawsuit’s final outcome — a move that would require legislative authorization.
“We want to very clear: the governor and his administration do not support and would not implement a tolling program on passenger vehicles,” Matt Sheaff, a spokesperson for McKee, said Wednesday. “As this ruling has just come out, our team is reviewing the decision and evaluating next steps.”
House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said in a joint statement, “The General Assembly prohibited the tolling of passenger cars, and regardless of the eventual outcome of this lawsuit, that will not change.” Both are Democrats.
Local Republicans — most of whom were critical of truck-tolling from the start — said Smith Hill Democrats failed to heed their warnings that this was the most likely outcome of litigation over the policy. The Senate GOP caucus urged McKee not to appeal Smith’s ruling.
“It was ridiculous that the General Assembly would adopt a plan that called for new tolls statewide and millions in debt with so little information,” said Senate Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz, R-North Smithfield. She added, “Anyone who tries to implement tolls on cars as a result of this court decision will face fierce opposition from our members.”
The condition of the state’s 8.5 million square feet of bridge deck area has been steadily improving since RhodeWorks became law. According to RIDOT, 82.7% of bridge deck area was structurally sufficient as of June, up from a low of 74.4% in October 2016. The goal set by RhodeWorks is to hit 90% by 2025.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook
Tim White, Steph Machado, Tolly Taylor and Shiina LoSciuto contributed to this report.