Transportation Executive Summary: When is a Toll a Tax, Round IV
We have reported many times on the status of litigation in Rhode Island concerning certain tolls implemented by the state of Rhode Island. Link to the most recent post. The case was finally heard by the district court and this article will summarize the district court’s findings. American Transportation Associations, Inc. v. Alviti, 2022 WL 4364195 (D.R.I. 2022).
RhodeWorks were tolling locations in Rhode Island that tolled only large commercial trucks and trailer tractors. The money collected would be used to pay the costs associated with the operation and maintenance of the toll facility, the replacement, reconstruction, maintenance, and operation of Rhode Island bridges. The trucking industry represented by the American Trucking Associations, filed suit for an injunction to stop the tolls claiming they violated the Dormant Commerce Clause (“DCC”) of the constitution.
Before the court could decide on the DCC claim, it first had three issues to resolve: (1) whether standing existed for all the plaintiffs, (2) congressional authorization and (3) burden of proof. On the first issue, the plaintiffs were able to show standing by offering evidence that at least one of their trucks went through these tolls and as a result, were injured when their operating costs increased. On the second issue, the defendant argues that the plaintiff’s DCC argument fails due to congressional authorization given in certain legislation, which allows for tolling on interstate highways subject to certain requirements. The court ruled that the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 does not evince an unmistakably clear intent by congress to completely shield state highway tolling activity from DCC challenges. On the last issue, the parties disagreed on the plaintiff’s burden of proof, the defendant claiming that the burden is beyond a reasonable doubt as is the norm in cases concerning constitutionality, and the plaintiff arguing for preponderance of the evidence. To resolve this, the court relies on precedent and holds that the plaintiff’s burden of proof is by a preponderance of the evidence.
The plaintiffs argue that the RhodeWorks tolling violates the DCC. In user fees cases under the DCC, such as this, a fee is reasonable if (1) it is based on fair approximation of use of the facilities, (2) is not excessive in relation to the benefits conferred, and (3) does not discriminate against interstate commerce. To succeed, the plaintiffs need to show that the tolling regime fails to fairly approximate each tolled user’s use of the tolled facilities or that it discriminates against interstate commerce. The defendant argues that bigger trucks in 8+ classes use these bridges and are more likely to damage it compared to smaller vehicles, which is why only those are tolled. However, the plaintiff offers evidence to show that vehicles in classes 6 and 7, which are not tolled, can cause similar damage to that of the vehicles in the 8+ class. The defendant failed to fairly approximate each tolled user’s use of the tolled facilities.
The plaintiffs were able to successfully prove that the tolls were discriminatory in two ways: their differential impact of the toll camps and the classes of vehicles that were tolled vs not tolled. The court found that the tolls inevitably burden interstate travel more heavily than intrastate travel, and that shifting the tolling burden onto vehicles that are more likely to be owned by out-of-state travelers increases the tolls paid by nonlocal businesses. Because the plaintiffs were able to prove that the tolling was discriminatory in purpose and effect, the court then applied strict scrutiny. Strict scrutiny demands that the state show they are advancing a legitimate local purpose that cannot be served by reasonable nondiscriminatory alternatives. While Rhode Island does have a legitimate interest in maintaining ailing bridges, the court found that the interest could be served by a tolling system that does not offend the commerce clause like other states have successfully been able to implement.
After a 12-day bench trial, the court found that the RhodeWorks program failed to toll bridge users based on fair approximation of fair use bridges, the toll was enacted with a discriminatory purpose and effect and is therefore unconstitutional under the DCC.
The decision has been appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. Continue to monitor this page for further developments.
For more information about transporation matters
Contact John F. Fatino for more information about trucking and transportation regulatory matters at 515-288-6041. Taylor J. Thomas, Law Clerk and Drake University Law School J.D. candidate, assisted in the preparation of these materials.