As the U.S. Court of Appeals considers the fate of Rhode Island’s appeal of a federal court’s decision that ended the state’s truck-only tolls, confidence is growing on one side of the table.
During a recent interview on Transport Topics’ “Newsmakers,” American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear spoke candidly about the impending ruling.
“We feel like we’re going to win this, and we should win this,” Spear said. “It’s just absolute corruption when you have a state taxing out-of-state vehicles.”
The original lawsuit filed by ATA successfully argued that Rhode Island’s tolling plan violated the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids states from imposing charges with the intent to discriminate in favor of domestic entities and against out-of-state or interstate entities.
“The ruling was overwhelmingly favorable for our industry,” Spear said. “We feel very comfortable with that decision, and looking at appeal, I feel that our counsel is comfortable with our arguments and our ability to respond to this.”
Despite the ATA’s confidence, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha believes the case is far from a slam dunk.
“I think that case candidly could go either way,” Neronha told WJAR News. “We are just going to have to wait for a decision from the First Circuit to see where it goes.”
While there is no timetable for the ruling, Neronha said he believes a decision in the case will be made by spring. He also noted he isn’t convinced the ruling from the Court of Appeals will be the final word on the case.
“I think it could go even further regardless of who prevails,” he said.
Neronha added that in the event the ruling does not favor Rhode Island, it would then be up to the state’s General Assembly leadership, along with Gov. Dan McKee, whether to pursue escalating the case to the Supreme Court.
A hefty price tag
Arguing the case has taken a toll on the bank accounts of both sides.
In June, WJAR reported that Rhode Island’s legal battle had already cost the state roughly $8.4 million dollars in outside legal fees, with that amount expected to increase before the case is settled.
As far as the appellees go, Spear didn’t offer exact numbers, but expressed frustration when it came to the rising cost of the suit.
“It’s a shame that we have to spend this much money arguing in court over a state that’s just busted – flat broke,” Spear said. “If you look at all their accounts including pensions, they’re broke and they’re looking for any source of revenue possible to offset that.”
The state enacted the truck-only tolls program as a means of funding its RhodeWorks initiative, which sought to address Rhode Island’s dilapidated bridges.
Since 2018, 12 truck-tolling locations across the state had generated roughly $100 million before being ordered to shut down in September 2022.
The governor’s office did not respond to Land Line’s request for comment regarding Spear’s statement.
Spear also fears the ripple effect a ruling in favor of the state could have, a concern shared by an overwhelming amount of the trucking industry and one that attorneys for ATA pointed out during the appeal hearing.
“Rhode Island is a small state, but if this were to stand, it’s going to spread to New York, Connecticut, Indiana and my home state of Wyoming,” Spear said. “These are things that get decided that have a national impact.” LL