US appeals court backs truckers in legal fight against tolls
A federal appeals court has backed the trucking industry in its legal fight to end Rhode Island’s truck tolls.
The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday reversed a lower court ruling to dismiss the suit. The lower court in March said it lacked jurisdiction and the case should be heard in state court.
The appeals court said the tolls Rhode Island started charging on its highways last year are not state taxes protected under federal law from federal court review.
“When we look at whether the word “tax” was then understood to include tolls, we find something of a mixed bag, albeit one quite heavily loaded in favor of treating tolls as something other than taxes,” Judge William Kayatta wrote.
The ruling sends the case back to U.S. District Court.
The suit was brought by the American Trucking Associations and three trucking companies that allege the toll plan violates the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause by discriminating against out-of-state economic interests in favor of in-state interests.
Connecticut officials have been watching the Rhode Island case closely as the state considers whether to install truck tolls to help pay for part of Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont’s wide-ranging transportation improvement plan, which addresses roads, bridges, rail, buses and airports. Lamont released a revised $19.4 billion version of his CT2030 plan on Friday, which calls for truck tolls on a dozen bridges. The average rate would be $8 for heavy trucks.
State Sen. Len Fasano, the Republican Senate leader who opposes tolls, said Lamont should call off any plans for truck-only tolls considering the new Rhode Island ruling.
“The court’s decision gives credence to the trucking industry’s challenge,” Fasano said. “It ties up this issue in litigation for years to come, leaves doubt and uncertainty in the ability to toll only trucks, and creates significant economic risk for taxpayers.”
But Lamont downplayed the Rhode Island court ruling as “procedural” and argued it “says nothing about the strength of the underlying legal challenge” to truck-only tolls.
“Earlier today, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo asserted her confidence that Rhode Island ‘will win our case in federal court,’ and I agree,” Lamont said on Friday. The governor has said he hopes Connecticut lawmakers will return to the Capitol for a special session this month to vote on transportation and several other outstanding issues.
Rhode Island Trucking Association President Chris Maxwell said in a statement that Thursday’s ruling “is just another step in getting these extortionary tolls torn down.”
The state, however, maintains the tolls are legal and essential to maintaining state infrastructure.
“(The ruling) doesn’t say anything about the merits of the case, and I think we’re going to win on the merits of the case, and we’re still tolling. The gantries are still tolling,” Raimondo, a Democrat, said Friday. “I wouldn’t call it really a setback.”