Judge Gives the Green Light to Constitutional Challenge to Rhode Island’s Truck-Tolling Scheme

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Earlier this month, a federal judge allowed a legal challenge to Rhode Island’s exorbitant truck-only tolls to proceed.  The court rejected Rhode Island officials’ latest arguments that their discriminatory toll scheme is immune from a constitutional challenge—the same defense that Pennsylvania officials relied upon in defending its excessive Turnpike tolls last year.  This decision and the ultimate resolution of this case may have important implications for challenges to state highway tolling across the country.

Rhode Island Implements Truck-Only Tolls to Fund State Infrastructure Projects.

In 2016, the Rhode Island General Assembly enacted the “RhodeWorks” infrastructure program, which included authorization for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation to collect tolls on heavy trucks—and only heavy trucks—passing over bridges in the state.[1] The law expressly prohibited collecting tolls on other vehicles, including passenger cars, buses, and smaller trucks. The Rhode Island DOT implemented the program and began collecting truck tolls in June 2018. Shortly thereafter, the American Trucking Associations (“ATA”) and several trucking companies sued the Rhode Island DOT Director in federal court.[2]

The plaintiffs argue that the tolls violate the Commerce Clause for three reasons: the tolls are intended to discriminate against interstate interests, the tolls discriminate against interstate interests because they fall disproportionately on out-of-state truckers, and the tolls exceeded the costs of maintaining the tolled bridges. These claims are based on prior Supreme Court precedent that the United States Constitution’s Commerce Clause, which is intended to protect interstate commerce from state-imposed burdens, prohibits states from collecting user fees (like highway tolls) that exceed the cost of providing the facility (toll roads) or that are not fairly apportioned among the users of those facilities.[3]

Federal District Court Rules Against Rhode Island’s Strategy to Sideline the Federal Judiciary and the United States Constitution.

Rhode Island has twice attempted to prevent the federal district court from reaching the constitutionality of its discriminatory tolls. Rhode Island initially argued that the federal court could not decide the claims because the tolls were effectively a tax that, under an particular federal law, can only be reviewed in state court. The district court agreed,[4] but the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed sending the case back to the district court.[5]

Back at the district court, Rhode Island argued a new defense: the claims should be dismissed because Congress authorized states to impose unlimited, discriminatory highway tolls in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (“ISTEA”), a 29 year-old federal highway authorization bill.[6]  Rhode Island relied on the legal principle that, even though the Commerce Clause prohibits states from imposing unreasonable burdens on interstate commerce, Congress, by statute, can give states permission to impose such burdens. Pennsylvania officials successfully relied on the same argument last year before the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to defeat a Commerce Clause challenge to exorbitant Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls.[7]

Rhode Island’s federal district court, not bound by the Third Circuit’s interpretation of ISTEA in the Pennsylvania Turnpike case, disagreed. On July 20, 2020, District Judge William E. Smith of the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island denied the Rhode Island’s motion. As the court explained, in order to find that Congress had authorized a state to engage in conduct that would otherwise violate the Commerce Clause, Congress must make its intent to do so “unmistakably clear.” ISTEA did not meet that requirement in order to insulate RhodeWorks’ truck-only bridge tolls from constitutional scrutiny.[8]

The court also held that statements made by Rhode Island officials, who led the efforts to enact the RhodeWorks tolls, were probative of unconstitutional discrimination. For example, Rhode Island Governor Raimondo extolled that the truck-only tolls would generate “plenty” of revenue for RhodeWorks, “the majority of which would come from out of state.” Similarly, Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello explained that “a lot of the burden on the repair of our bridges, overpasses, and infrastructure is passed to out-of-state truckers.”

Although this decision does not resolve the constitutionality of Rhode Island’s truck-only bridge tolls, it is significant because it endorses the proposition that government tolling policies are not beyond the protections guaranteed by the Constitution. While this proposition should be unremarkable—indeed, it is supported by Supreme Court precedent—it is often overlooked by state officials. A similar issue is currently at the heart of an ongoing legal challenge to Indiana’s truck-only toll scheme.

Supreme Court Review on the Horizon?

The district court’s ruling may have set the stage for Supreme Court review in the future. If the First Circuit ultimately agrees with the district court’s interpretation of ISTEA on appeal, a circuit split would be created on the question of what Congress intended when it enacted the statute. Disagreement among several federal appellate courts over whether Congress actually intended to allow states to impose tolls, without restraint, upon users of their highways is just the type of inconsistency that catches the Supreme Court’s attention.  Such a split increases the chance the Supreme Court will take up the issue and clarify both the meaning of ISTEA’s statutory language and the limit of state authority to impose excessive, discriminatory tolls. That decision would then bind Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and all states.

The outcome of the Rhode Island, as well as the Indiana, case may have national implications as states increasingly rely on toll revenue to fund annual budgets. For more information about the Rhode Island truck-toll litigation and the constitutionality of state tolling policies, please contact:

Charlie R. Stinson       (202) 298-4762          crs@cullenlaw.com

Gregory R. Reed         (202) 298-4767           grr@cullenlaw.com

Paul D. Cullen, Jr.      (202) 944-8600           pxc@cullenlaw.com

 

 

[1] Rhode Island Bridge Replacement, Reconstruction, and Maintenance Fund Act of 2016, R.I. Gen. Laws § 42-13.1‑1 et seq.

[2] The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority also joined the suit.

[3] Evansville-Vanderburgh Airport Auth. Dist. v. Delta Airlines, Inc., 405 U.S. 707 (1972).

[4] Am. Trucking Ass’ns, Inc. v. Alviti, 377 F. Supp. 3d 125 (D.R.I. 2019).

[5] Am. Trucking Ass’ns, Inc. v. Alviti, 944 F.3d 45 (1st Cir. 2019).

[6] Pub. L. No. 102-240, 105 Stat. 1914 (1991).

[7] Owner-Operator Indep. Drivers Ass’n, Inc. v. Pa. Turnpike Comm’n, 934 F.3d 283 (3d Cir. 2019), cert. denied, 140 S. Ct. 959 (2020).

[8] Am. Trucking Ass’ns, Inc. v. Alviti, No. CV 18-378-WES, 2020 WL 4050237 (D.R.I. July 20, 2020).

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