Rhode Island legislators decided to toll trucks to help balance the books on a 10-year plan to fix its bridges, which are some of the worst in the nation.
“We don’t need to toll cars,” said Charles St. Martin, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation.
But state officials did need more transportation money. St. Martin said existing funding wasn’t enough to keep pace with the rate at which Rhode Island’s bridges wore out, or became what the federal government calls “structurally deficient.”
“We needed a little more revenue to make that happen,” St. Martin said.
So in 2016 the legislature voted to put up two truck-only tolls along Interstate I-95 in the southwestern part of Rhode Island. Those have been up for about six months and more are expected to come online soon. About one new gantry a month starting in mid-spring and running into next year.
“The tolling locations are associated with individual bridge - or bridges - depending on where they’re located,” St. Martin said. “The revenues that are collected at those locations will go to pay for the work happening on those bridges, until they’re paid for.”
So far, the RI DOT says program has exceeded expectations: pulling in about $600,000 per month.
But the American Trucking Associations and several other trucking industry groups believe the whole arrangement is unconstitutional. They’re part of a federal lawsuitsaying Rhode Island’s tolls give breaks to in-state truckers, while singling out the large tractor-trailers typically engaged in state-to-state business.
“This plan of theirs violates the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, which prevents states from imposing these kinds of burdens on interstate commerce,” said Rich Pianka, a lawyer for the American Trucking Associations.
“We want to make sure to establish that other states don’t get the same idea and try to use interstate commerce - and interstate trucking - as a piggy bank for their funding issues,” Pianka said.
A spokesperson for the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the federal challenge in that state, citing the ongoing litigation in the case.
But this summer then-Attorney General Peter Kilmartin filed a motion to dismissthe trucking industry’s challenge, arguing federal courts lack authority to strike down collection of tolls approved by a state government.
Oral arguments on that challenge happened in January, and a spokesperson for the Office of the Attorney General said a decision on that challenge is pending.
Despite the challenges, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont is looking at mimicking the plan in his state.
Lamont raised the concept repeatedly on the campaign trail and brought it up again in his recent budget address. But he also pivoted, saying last week truck-only tolls won’t bring in the money he needs to repair Connecticut roads. So he’s considering tolls on cars, too.
Joe Sculley with the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut said, either way, it’s one more tax on state truckers.
“We pay a per gallon diesel tax in Connecticut. We pay the petroleum gross receipts tax. We pay registration fees. Those things are all supposed to be funding our roads,” Sculley said.
Sculley also said out-of-state truckers already pay to drive on Connecticut roads.
“There’s a misconception that out-of-state trucks travel through Connecticut for free, which is not true,” Sculley said, citing fuel costs and registration fees through the International Fuel Tax Agreement and International Registration Plan, which apportion money from out-of-state trucks back to states based on the amount of in-state miles driven.
But the efficacy of fuel-based revenues to pay for highway improvements is debatable.
In a 2018 Economic Report of the President, the White House said, “with the increasing prevalence of electric vehicles and high fuel economy vehicles, and with some fuel-based revenue sources not being indexed to inflation, the existing financing mechanism is becoming increasingly unsustainable, with funding needs growing faster than dedicated revenues.”
“The economic arguments in favor of using toll revenues to pay for roads and highways,” the report concludes, “are solid.”
This report comes from the New England News Collaborative: Eight public media companies, including The Public's Radio, coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.