Clock ticking on state to appeal truck tolling stoppage

Updated at 4:51 p.m.

PROVIDENCE – A federal judge’s decree Sept. 21 ordering stoppage of the state’s tolling of large commercial trucks at 12 gantries throughout Rhode Island and ruling the program was unconstitutional started a countdown to the deadline for a potential appeal.

According to rules of the U.S. Federal District Court of Rhode Island, any “dissatisfied party may appeal the judgment by filing a notice of appeal with the clerk of the District Court. The notice of appeal must be filed within 30 days after the judgment.”

In his decision, U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith wrote that because the state failed to prove that large commercial trucks placed an outsized burden on the state’s roads and bridges, RhodeWorks, the 10-year infrastructure program meant to fix the state’s ailing roads and bridges, “was enacted with a discriminatory purpose, and is discriminatory in effect,” concluding the program violated the constitution’s commerce clause.

Now, the defendants in the case, officially listed in court filings as R.I. Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti Jr., RIDOT itself and the Rhode Island Bridge and Turnpike Authority, are consulting with state officials and legal advisors to make a decision on whether to accept the end of the RhodeWorks tolling scheme or continue the fight in federal court.

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According to RIDOT spokesperson Charles St. Martin, the tolling program, first instituted in 2016 by then-Governor Gina M. Raimondo, has brought in approximately $101 million since the state began collecting trucker fees in 2018. In the most recent year, the program funneled $40 million into the department’s coffers, which are earmarked specifically for bridge and road repairs.

The full budget for RhodeWorks is about $4.9 billion over 10 years, with approximately 10% coming from the toll program, according to the department’s website.

At the time of its passage by the General Assembly, the program was touted as a way to bring 90% of the state’s bridges into “structural sufficiency by 2024,” according to a legislative press release.

St. Martin told Providence Business News on Friday that the tolling gantries were officially shutoff on Wednesday at 3:40 p.m., in compliance with the court order that gave the state agency 48 hours to halt the program. But what happens next has yet to be clarified.

“At this point we are reviewing the [court’s] decision and determining the next steps,” he said. “And we expect to make a decision soon.”

The transportation department has vowed not to cease construction on any of the projects currently in the works. “None of the projects will be stopping,” said St. Martin.

Asked if the department’s list of priorities might be reworked or if the agency is exploring different revenue streams to make up the shortfall, St. Martin said this is likewise undetermined.

“It’s too early to answer those questions,” he said. “All current projects will continue without delay.”

The spokesperson for Gov. Daniel J. McKee, Matt Sheaff, did not respond to a request for comment. McKee has expressed support for the program but said that passenger tolls are off the table.

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi on Friday said the state should appeal the ruling, which as an attorney he recommends for all such adverse decisions “to preserve the state’s options on behalf of the taxpayers.”

He and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio previously said the tolling of passenger cars will not take place “regardless of the outcome of this lawsuit.”

One stopgap to the lost revenue could be the $47 million coming to the state in 2022 as part of the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The legislation includes $576 million of federal funds over a five-year period toward Rhode Island’s transportation infrastructure.

(ADDS paragraphs 14-15 with comment from Shekarchi and Ruggerio.)

Christopher Allen is a PBN staff writer. You may reach him at . PBN Special Projects Editor James Bessette contributed to this report.

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