Truckers Assn. sees car tolls as inevitable

Warwick Beacon ·

The way Chris Maxwell sees it, all the legal maneuvering by the state is part of an effort to get toll gantries up and operating across the state – and bringing in the money – before federal courts find the tolling of trucks discriminatory.

And then what? 

Should courts rule selective tolling of trucks illegal, Maxwell imagines Rhode Island lawmakers will say they have no choice but to toll all vehicles despite state legislation exempting passenger cars and pickup trucks.

“It’s going to be pretty tough to pull down and deactivate [the gantries],” Maxwell, president of the Rhode Island Trucking Association, said Friday. “The tactic is to get the system up, the program in place. Clearly, that’s what they are gunning for.”

He added, “Eventually, they knew this would lead to cars. This [tolls for trucks only] was a Trojan horse.”

He reasons the state played its cards perfectly by contesting the trucking association’s suit in the federal courts, arguing the matter should be heard by the state courts. As that was being litigated, the truckers couldn’t seek an injunction to stop the erection of gantries and the collection of tolls.

On March 2, the full First Circuit Appeals Court in Boston declined to re-hear the state of Rhode Island’s appeal in the truck-only toll lawsuit for the case to be moved from federal to state court. But by then, six of the 12 gantry locations were up and running and another two are up but not operating.

According to Department of Transportation spokesman Charles St. Martin, all 12 gantry locations are slated to be up and running by the end of this June.

In 2017, DOT signed a 10-year, $68.9 million contract to design build and operate the gantry system. According to a release issued by the agency at the time of the award, the cost was broken down as $11.2 million for the systems development, including hardware and software; $30.6 million for roadside infrastructure and to build the gantries; and $27.1 million for operation and maintenance.

Revenues raised by the toll system are an integral component to the funding of the $4.7 billion RhodeWorks program announced in 2016. The DOT did not wait for the gantries to initiate what it termed a five-year “surge” to address the state’s 150 most deficient bridges, borrowing $300 million in anticipation of Federal Highway Administration funding to get the work started.

At the time the plan was announced, it was projected tolls of the larger Class 8 trucks would generate $45 million annually. Although only half the gantries are operational and they have been coming online as completed, revenues are short of projections. In fiscal year 2019, from July 2018 to June 2019, the system generated $7.2 million. From last July through this February, the gantries brought in an additional $7.1 million.

Maxwell’s take is that the state will continue to push off a court showdown so as to get as many of the gantries up and operational as possible. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if the state appealed the latest ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court in a “Hail Mary,” which he believes would have no chance of being entertained but would buy more time.

The office of the attorney general provided this statement in response to questions as to the state’s next legal move: “We respect the decision of the First Circuit not to re-review their initial decision, which concerned whether the case would be heard in Federal or State court. We remain fully prepared to proceed and look forward to addressing the merits of the case.”

In the end, Maxwell sees the courts as finding the state can’t single out a class of vehicle to toll, leaving the state the option of closing the gantries – at a loss of what it has invested in the system and what was projected to fund 10 percent of the RhodeWorks program – or extending the tolls to cars.

Either way, Maxwell concludes, “Our victory is the Rhode Island citizens’ loss.”

Conceivably, the state could have a token toll for cars, say 10 cents per gantry, and leave tractor trailer trucks at a much higher rate. They are charged $3 with a maximum of $20 a day.

Maxwell won’t be surprised if that were to happen, although in the long run – with vehicles becoming increasingly fuel efficient and a growing number of electric vehicles, resulting in a decline of gasoline tax revenues that fund the bulk of road work – he envisions a vehicle miles traveled tax, or VMT. This tax could be based off an odometer reading performed at registration or at some fixed time. According to the Federal Highway Administration website, VMTs are being used on a limited test basis in Oregon.

“In a broad sense, VMT fees’ application is envisioned through the use of an onboard vehicle device to capture the distance driven by a vehicle through GPS or other technology and relate that to a method of charging, which could range from manual cash payment to automatic deduction for a prepaid customer account,” the site reads.

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