Most commuters like me don’t particularly like paying tolls, even if we know the important role that the tolls serve in funding road construction and maintenance. Every morning when it is time for me to leave for work, I pull a traffic map up on my phone and look at my options. Do I pay a toll to use a road that shaves up to 10 minutes off my drive, or do I take a longer route and pocket the money for use towards something else? I usually opt for the toll road so that I can get to the office quicker and start crossing things off my to-do list, even if I would rather not pay the toll.
The State of Rhode Island likely thought that it had found the perfect solution between raising needed funds and avoiding the ire of local residents when, in 2016, it enacted a new plan – implement a toll program on busy bridges in the state, but only require large commercial trucks and tractor trailers to pay the fees. Exclude daily commuters and local businesses using smaller vehicles. The program, known as “RhodeWorks,” was the first and only program of its kind in the United States. Under the program, a single large truck or tractor trailer could incur up to $40 a day in tolls.
Recently, in a major win for the trucking industry, a federal district court sided with the American Trucking Associations and two companies in a lawsuit that they filed in 2018 to stop the toll program. The court found that RhodeWorks’ unequal imposition of tolls violated the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution and entered an order that permanently stops the State of Rhode Island from using the toll program.
The federal court determined that the RhodeWorks program could only continue if it met three requirements: (1) the tolls were based on a fair approximation of drivers’ use of the bridges; (2) the tolls were not excessive in relation to the benefits that drivers received; and (3) the tolls did not discriminate against interstate commerce. The court found that the program violated the first and third requirements.
The court found that the RhodeWorks program violated the first requirement in part because a remarkable 97% of vehicles that used the bridges were not tolled at all. In other words, although commercial trucks and tractor trailers only comprised 3% of the users of the bridges, they had to pay 100% of the tolls under the program – a result that the court described as “inherently unfair.” The court found that the RhodeWorks program violated the third requirement in part because the legislation was both crafted to, and had the effect of, protecting local businesses and residents at the expense of vehicles that were traveling across state lines.
After four years of litigation on a first-of-its kind issue, the decision both provides immediate economic relief to companies that have been paying the tolls and will be very helpful to the trucking industry going forward if any other states or localities try to implement a similar toll program.
The decision is American Trucking Associations v. Alviti, No. 180378 (D.R.I. Sept. 21, 2022), and is available here.
If you have any questions about this article or about the trucking industry and tolls in general, please contact Danielle Brim (firstname.lastname@example.org) at (804) 377-1264 or Steve Setliff (email@example.com) at (804) 377-1261.