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Legal battle ahead for Rhode Island truck-only toll plan

Feb. 17, 2016
Constitutional validity is but one legal question

Rhode Island's highly-controversial plan to force commercial trucks to pay a series of tolls as a way to generate highway funds faces a series of legal issues, trucking insiders and business leaders say.

John Lynch, VP of federation relations at the American Trucking Associations (ATA) trade group, told American Trucker that the truck-toll plan violates the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution.

Yet Lynch noted that legal efforts “take time to come about” and that the trade group is concerned that with Rhode Island's truck-only toll plan on the books, other states might try them as well.

The plan – part of the proposed $700 million “RhodeWorks” to revitalize the Ocean state’s highway infrastructure – will apply to Class 6 and higher commercial trucks and largely out-of-state ones at that.

According to the RhodeWorks proposal, it would cost roughly $20 in tolls for tractor-trailer to cross the state one-way using Interstate 95 and other interstate offshoots as those vehicles cross 14 proposed electronic toll markers, each costing about $3. The maximum any trucker would pay in one day is $40, according to the plan.

Lynch noted that one of the reasons ATA opposes the addition of tolls to existing interstates is that they encourage the “diversion” of trucks off highways onto local roadways.

“So you end up with 80,000-lb. trucks rolling through small towns more frequently,” he said. “Rhode Island said they’d fix that by banning trucks from leaving the highway, but we’d see them in court over that too.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) conducted a survey last year of its members in Rhode Island and other northeastern states – Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Vermont – and found 77% indicated they would alter their routes to avoid paying tolls in Rhode Island, with 61% saying they would change routes to avoid tolls in other states as well.

There could be broader negative consequences from this truck-only toll proposal as well.

For example, Ocean State Job Lot, which operates 118 discount stores in the Northeast, delayed plans to build a $50 million 500,000 sq. ft. distribution center in Rhode Island specifically over the truck-toll plan.

According to the Providence Journal newspaper, Job Lot CEO Marc Perlman testified before the Rhode Island House Finance Committee that the proposed new truck tolls would cost his company more than six times what he pays in tolls in every other state he does business in combined.

“That action speaks volumes, I think, about this [truck toll] plan,” ATA’s Lynch told Fleet Owner. “There doesn’t seem to be much appreciation over the economic impact of this plan.”

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr | Editor in Chief

Sean previously reported and commented on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry. Also be sure to visit Sean's blog Trucks at Work where he offers analysis on a variety of different topics inside the trucking industry.

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