Rhode Island's truck tolling system that took effect in 2018 to fund repairs to the state's crumbling bridges is unconstitutional and must be ended within 48 hours, a federal judge said in a decision released Wednesday.
Because the tolling system called RhodeWorks and aimed at tractor-trailers "was enacted with a discriminatory purpose, and is discriminatory in effect, the statute’s tolling regime is unconstitutional under the dormant Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution," U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith wrote in the 91-page ruling.
"This injunction shall take effect 48 hours following entry of final judgment," he wrote.
Former Gov. Gina Raimondo signed the bill authorizing the tolls in 2016, and the state began collecting money in 2018.
The trucking industry in 2018 challenged the tolling system in court, saying in part it discriminated against out-of-state economic interests in order to favor in-state interests. The state’s legal position was that the federal court cannot restrain the collection of state taxes, such as tolls, and state matters should be adjudicated in state court.
"We told Rhode Island’s leaders from the start that their crazy scheme was not only discriminatory, but illegal," Chris Spear, president and chief executive of the American Trucking Associations said in a statement Wednesday. "We’re pleased the court agreed."
The other plaintiffs were Cumberland Farms Inc., M&M Transport Services Inc. and New England Motor Freight.
The decision sets a standard that prevents other states from setting up similar tolling systems, said Rhode Island Trucking Association President Chris Maxwell.
"Had we not prevailed, these tolls would have spread across the country and this ruling sends a strong signal to other states that trucking is not to be targeted as a piggy bank," he said.
The state is considering its options, according to a statement from the office of current Democratic Gov. Dan McKee. But the administration reiterated that it is not considering tolling passenger vehicles.
"As this ruling has just come out, our team is reviewing the decision and evaluating next steps," the statement said.
The legislation was intended to create a funding stream for repairs to about 650 bridges in the state that were either structurally deficient or close to becoming structurally deficient.
Raimondo justified tolling trucks, saying big rigs caused the most damage to roads.
The tolls are collected electronically via about a dozen gantries spanning the state’s major highways.
The suit was at first dismissed by a federal district court which said it lacked jurisdiction and the case should be heard in state court. But the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2020 reversed the lower court ruling, sending it back to district court.