Federal Courts Conflicted Over Rhode Island’s “Unconstitutional” Truck-Only Tolls
Providence, RI – The court battle between Rhode Island and trucking industry representatives over the state’s controversial truck-only tolling program took a new twist last week.
At issue in the fierce legal battle continues to be whether tolls imposed on the commercial trucking industry as part of Rhode Island Department of Transportation’s (RIDOT) RhodeWorks program are taxes or user fees.
On Thursday, Rhode Island officials petitioned the First Circuit Court of Appeals to once again hear a re-arguing of its case, which contends that RhodeWorks tolls imposed on commercial truckers are taxes, not user fees.
In July of 2018, the American Trucking Associations (ATA), along with three northeast-based carriers, filed suit against the state in the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island arguing that RIDOT’s RhodeWorks plan is “unconstitutional.”
ATA contends RhodeWorks imposes tolls “disproportionately” on out-of-state truck drivers and operators, thus violating the Commerce Clause.
In March of 2019, U.S. District Court judge William Smith dismissed ATA’s lawsuit over the question of whether the tolls are taxes or user fees.
Angering many trucking stakeholders, Judge Smith held that the tolls actually constitute a “tax” under the state’s Tax Injunction Act (TIA).
Judge Smith’s opinion noted that though the fees in this case are referred to as ‘tolls,’ they “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.”
Under the TIA, federal courts are barred from blocking state taxes.
Therefore, the federal court lacks jurisdiction to hear such a case, Judge Smith’s opinion held.
ATA appealed Judge Smith’s decision to the the First Circuit Court of Appeals.
On December 5, 2019, ATA scored a big victory as the appellate court unanimously determined tolls as part of RhodeWorks were not taxes, but instead were actually user fees.
“When we look at whether the word ‘tax’ was then understood to include tolls, we find something of a mixed bag, albeit one quite heavily loaded in favor of treating tolls as something other than taxes,” Judge William J. Kayatta wrote in the decision for the First Circuit Court of Appeals.
The court then sent the case back to U.S. District Court.
On Thursday, Kristy dosReis, spokeswoman for RI Attorney General Peter Neronha, said the state believes “the panel’s decision in this case departed from First Circuit precedent interpreting the Tax Injunction Act.”
State officials are hoping to have the case once again dismissed in federal court and force ATA to litigate in Rhode Island state court.
According to experts Transportation Nation Network (TNN) has spoken to about the case, ATA’s chances of winning this case in Rhode Island state court would be significantly lower.
dosReis acknowledged as much in her most recent statement.
“We are asking that the entire First Circuit consider hearing the case on this issue because we felt it was important to seek clarification on the jurisdictional issue,” she said.
Rhode Island Trucking Association President Chris Maxwell wasted no time in firing back.
In a news release Thursday, Maxwell accused RIDOT and Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo of “using every conceivable delay tactic within their means to keep this case away from the federal courts.”
Despite the delay, RIDOT continues to move full speed ahead.
The state is already collecting tolls at five of the 13 planned truck-only tolling locations.
RIDOT spokesperson Charles St. Martin confirmed last week to the Providence Journal the state intends to have 12 of the 13 locations collecting tolls by June of 2020.
TNN will continue to follow this case.