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Rhode Island Department of Transportation

Rhode Island’s Trucks-Only Toll Plan Worries ATA

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The American Trucking Associations is engaged in a legal battle in Rhode Island that could have long-reaching implications for the entire industrial economy.

The Rhode Island Department of Transportation is targeting this spring for the launch of a plan that would eventually place tolls at up to 14 different locations throughout the state, mostly on interstate highways. The funds collected will be used to pay for repair work on as many as 35 bridges in the state.

For years, the Federal Highway Administration has limited states from implementing tolls on interstate highways. The exception was to help a state complete major bridge or tunnel work. The option has been used sparingly; only when conventional methods to pay for the project are not sufficient.

This is the first time such a plan has been used for more minor bridge work. It’s also the first time it’s been proposed over a network of tolling locations throughout a state simultaneously. And those aren’t the only changes being proposed. Most significantly for manufacturing, the Rhode Island plan calls for the tolls to be assessed on semitrucks only. 

The plan, first launched in 2015, has been fought by the Rhode Island Trucking Association. The ATA has also been active in combating the plan, questioning much of the analysis provided by state officials. Recently, RIDOT published an Environmental Assessment of the impact of truck tolls. The RITA and ATA have challenged many of the findings in the report.

Among the objections posed by the trucking groups is a simple one of constitutionality, whether such a scheme is legal. Second, they dispute the degree to which trucks would use diversionary routes to avoid the tolling. The associations also dispute both the potential impacts of legislation, which is inevitable, and believe RIDOT overstates revenue projections from the tolling plan.

Perhaps most significantly, the associations dispute the idea that most of the toll costs will be absorbed by out-of-state carriers. RIDOT claimed that 60 percent of trucks were licensed out of state and used that information to sell the plan to the state legislature, ATA claims. However, separate state figures demonstrate that 94 percent of the trucks affected would be delivering or picking up from some state business, with just 6 percent of the vehicles crossing the state without stopping.

The ATA has long been opposed to the expansion of tolling, preferring gasoline taxes as a better method for raising needed revenues for road, bridge and tunnel work. The association is particularly motivated to defeat the Rhode Island bill.

“It’s problematic for our industry and for yours,” says the ATA’s Darren Roth, referring to the metals distribution business. “It is the customers who will ultimately bear the costs of this. Hopefully, shippers are paying attention to this as well.”

Part of the concern is that if Rhode Island is successful in implementing the plan, other cash-starved states might also follow suit, again selling the plan as a way of raising revenue on “out-of-state” businesses. Though no other states have yet pushed for a truck-only toll plan, Indiana has floated the idea of following Rhode Island’s lead on using a network of tolls to pay for smaller projects. 

Right now, Rhode Island is planning to open the plan at two locations within the state, both on the interstate near the Connecticut border. ATA believes the state is doing this because it anticipates a lawsuit. “Rhode Island wants to do a test run on the technology, the billing and the legal issues. We have said we believe the tolling scheme is unconstitutional, so they want to do the first two locations, wait for us to sue them, and see what the courts do. That’s sort of where we are,” Roth said.