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Rhode Island Sued Over Truck Tolls

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Funding the repair of Rhode Island's bridges and roads has been a challenge. The solution adopted by state officials was to impose tolls, but only on out-of-state-owned tractor trailers.
Rhode Island Department of Transportation

Rhode Island's bridges and roads have been ranked as the worst in the nation. In response, Governor Gina Raimondo unveiled a $5 billion program known as "RhodeWorks." Over the next 10 years Rhode Island's roads and bridges are being repaired and, in some cases, replaced.

But funding the ambitious program has been a challenge, in particular coming up with a way to plug a $450 million hole in the budget. The solution adopted by state officials was to impose tolls, but only on out-of-state-owned tractor trailers. The rationale was that these trucks cause the most damage to the state's infrastructure and have not been contributing to its repair. But the American Truckers Association and its Rhode Island chapter, along with Cumberland Farms, M&M Transport and New England Motor Freight, have challenged the new tolls in Federal Court in Providence.

Rhode Island's Director of Transportation Peter Alviti says the state did look at the traditional ways of raising money, like raising gas taxes, but that put more of a burden on the people who were already paying the lion's share of the cost of repair — namely the state's taxpayers and passenger car owners. And that, Alviti says, is unfair.

"Local residents, the taxpayers of the state have been paying for the repair and maintenance of our roadways, these large trucking companies that put heavy commercial vehicles that do a disproportionate amount of damage to our roads have been paying absolutely nothing," said Alviti.

But Christopher Maxwell, CEO of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Truckers Association, says, "If you're going to toll, you've got to toll everybody."

Maxwell says it's just not fair to toll only trucks. Maxwell also disputes the contention that large trucks cause all the damage to roads and bridges and says cars do damage as well, and car owners should pay their fair share in repairing them. He gave this example: "even if the $3.50 existing toll is placed on trucks, and they say trucks do 90 percent of the damage, well, that 10 percent car usage would result in 35 cents per car," he said. "Let them lay that on the public and see how they like it."

That $3.50 toll will be multiplied as more toll gantries are added. There are two now and 12 more are planned.

It's expected when all the gantries are up and operating that a trucker would pay more than $35 to pass from Massachusetts to Connecticut one way. Maxwell says there is a $40 daily cap on tolls, but while out-of-state truckers may pay that for passing once back and forth across the state — a total of 92 miles — local truckers can pay the same $40 and travel an unlimited number of miles in a day.

Maxwell claims that it is illegal, calling it an absolute blatant violation of the commerce clause. But the state says it has an exemption from the federal highway administration that allows such tolls to be collected for overpass and bridge repairs. That may be true says Maxwell but it doesn't allow them to toll only trucks.

There's a lot at stake financially. The new tolls went into effect June 11. Already the more than 7,000 trucks that pass daily under the two electronic tolling gantries on Rt. 95 in the southern part of the state have produced more than a half million dollars in revenue. And other states are watching the Rhode Island case to see if such targeted tolls will be upheld. If not, then cars too will have to be tolled, and that's what Maxwell believes is the state's ultimate goal: As he told WGBH news, "this is a Trojan horse, let's get tolling in, let's blame it on the trucks, and eventually we can get tolls on everybody, and then that takes us on the promised land."

But state leaders claim the truck tolls are the fairest way to raise the money needed to rebuild and maintain roads and bridges. That is now up to a federal judge in Providence to decide.

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