Judge rules truck-only tolls a constitutional violation

Posted 9/21/22

In spite of the ruling Wednesday by U.S. District Judge William Smith that the state’s program of tolling trucks violates the U.S. Constitution, Speaker of the House Joseph Shekarchi said …

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Judge rules truck-only tolls a constitutional violation


In spite of the ruling Wednesday by U.S. District Judge William Smith that the state’s program of tolling trucks violates the U.S. Constitution, Speaker of the House Joseph Shekarchi said yesterday he’s “confident” the ruling will be appealed.

“I expect it to be appealed. It [the ruling] doesn’t change my position of not tolling cars,” Shekarchi said yesterday as he visited the Pilgrim Senior Center. Shekarchi said the ruling came as “no surprise” adding that in a prior ruling Justice William E. Smith ruled in favor of the state.

According to reports yesterday afternoon, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronah was expected to file for a stay of the order which, if granted, would give the state the opportunity to continue the tolls for a period of time. 

Implemented during the administration of former Governor Gina Raimondo in 2016 to help pay for the RhodeWorks program to repair structurally failing bridges, legislation specifically identified trucks for tolling. Then Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello said cars were exempt from tolls and assured taxpayers that was included in the legislation.

Shekarchi joined other legislators at the time in saying cars would not be tolled.

A federal Rhode Island district judge undid those promises with Wednesday’s decision, which rules “the RhodeWorks tolling program violates the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution.”

“For this reason, the State is permanently enjoined from further tolling under the law,” Smith wrote in his decision.

Smith’s eloquent decision rubs sea salt in the now reopened wounds of Ocean State motorists.

“In the early 1980s, an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal that described the State of Rhode Island as ‘little more than a smudge on the fast lane to Cape Cod,’” Smith recalls in opening the decision. The judge predicts, accurately, that his decision may not be received well by Ocean State legislators.

“The remark struck a nerve: Rhode Islanders have always been a little sensitive that their state’s diminutive size garners it less respect than it deserves for its history, culture, beautiful beaches, and diversity,” Smith writes. “That lack of respect is exacerbated by the fact that the busiest highway in the United States – the I-95 North/South corridor – effectively bisects the state. More than 250,000 cars and trucks speed through the state on I-95 every day, many never stopping to appreciate the charms of the Ocean State.”

Raimondo launched RhodeWorks to regain a bit of the resources lost to the treads of 18-wheelers passing through the state.

Smith, however, has found in favor of the plaintiffs, including the American Trucking Association and Cumberland Farms.

“The solution they contrived – dubbed ‘RhodeWorks,’ the first and only of its kind in the United States – was to toll only large commercial trucks (or tractor trailers) at various bridge locations along these major corridors,” Smith wrote in Wednesday’s decision. “This plan had the obvious appeal of raising tens of millions of needed dollars from tractor trailers while leaving locals largely unaffected. Until now.”

Smith also rules that “the RhodeWorks tolling program would not be permissible absent authorization from Congress in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (“ISTEA”)” because “states may not toll interstate highways.”

He writes the state is, “permanently enjoined from charging or collecting tolls … or from enforcing nonpayment of such tolls through penalty” and the injunction takes affect within 48 hours on his decision.

Christopher Maxwell, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Trucking Association, who has consistently opposed the tolls from the start and questioned if the state could selectively toll trucks, referred questions to the American Trucking Association. The American Trucking Association did not return calls.

tolls, tolling


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