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Lamont pursued truck tolls; a judge just ruled them unconstitutional

A federal court judge yesterday struck down Rhode Island’s truck-only tolls on bridges, declaring them unconstitutional and forcing Rhode Island to immediately suspend toll collections, which amount to roughly $40 million per year, according to the Providence Journal.

A U.S. District Court Judge determined the truck tolls violated the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. 

“Because RhodeWorks fails to fairly apportion its tolls among bridge users based on a fair approximation of their use of the bridges, 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,” District Judge William E. Smith wrote.

The American Trucking Association hailed the decision. “We told Rhode Island’s leaders from start that their crazy scheme was not only discriminatory, but illegal,” said ATA President and CEO Chris Spears. “To any state looking to target our industry, you better bring your A-game… because we’re not rolling over.” 

Rhode Island had expected to collect $490 million over ten years from truck tolls, according to the Boston Globe. Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee’s administration has indicated they will not be seeking to expand the tolls to passenger vehicles and are considering next steps.

The court ruling means Connecticut may have dodged a similar bullet of having tolls on its highways but no legal way to collect them. 

During Gov. Ned Lamont’s first year in office, the governor pushed for tolls on Connecticut highways for all vehicles, after pledging to toll only trucks during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign. Lamont’s various tolling plans went through multiple iterations before finally returning to his pledge of tolling only trucks.

At the time, toll opponents and Connecticut’s trucking industry warned that a trucks-only toll system in Rhode Island was facing a federal lawsuit and Connecticut would be wading into legally suspect territory if they embarked on a similar project.

The warnings were downplayed by the Lamont administration before finally giving up on tolls for good in late 2019 following public outcry and a divided General Assembly.

At the time, Connecticut’s Special Transportation Fund faced projected deficits. Plans to toll Connecticut’s highways were initially put forward under Gov. Dannel Malloy’s administration but kicked into overdrive during Lamont’s first year in office.

Although tolling trucks never came to fruition – and would likely be facing the same fate as Rhode Island if they had – Lamont and fellow Democrats were successful in adding a highway use tax on trucks in 2021 over the protestations of Republicans and the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut.

The highway use tax is expected to generate roughly $90 million per year in revenue, but Republicans have repeatedly called for its repeal, saying it adds to the cost of consumer goods during a time of record high inflation.

Eliminating the truck tax is part of House Republican’s Contract with Connecticut plan released this week and is part of Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski’s campaign.

Despite the temporary suspension of the state’s gasoline tax to combat inflation, Special Transportation Fund projections have rebounded, built on American Rescue Plan Dollars, a full sales tax revenue transfer and the highway use tax.

“Had we not prevailed, these tolls would have spread across the country,” said Rhode Island Trucking Association President Chris Maxwell, “and this ruling sends a strong signal to other states that trucking is not to be targeted as a piggy bank.”

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Marc E. Fitch, Senior Investigative Reporter

Marc E. Fitch

Marc worked as an investigative reporter for Yankee Institute and was a 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow. He previously worked in the field of mental health is the author of several books and novels, along with numerous freelance reporting jobs and publications. Marc has a Master of Fine Arts degree from Western Connecticut State University.

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