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Judge orders halt to Rhode Island truck tolls, rules system is unconstitutional

A federal judge has slammed the brakes on Rhode Island’s truck tolls and sided with the long-haul trucking industry’s complaint that the highway charges were unfair and unconstitutional.    

After U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith ordered Rhode Island officials to stop collecting truck tolls within 48 hours, Rhode Island Department of Transportation spokeswoman Lisbeth Pettengill on Wednesday afternoon said the tolls would be shut off “probably this evening.”

At that point, Gov. Dan McKee was still reviewing his options and the administration had not said whether it would appeal the decision.

The state has collected $101 million in truck tolls since the first one launched in 2018. Without the dozen toll locations across the state, Rhode Island would lose an estimated $40 million annually in revenue.

In a 91-page ruling that recounted the put-down that Rhode Island is “little more than a smudge on the fast lane to Cape Cod,” Smith wrote that by discriminating against out-of-state trucks, the tolls placed an unconstitutional burden on interstate commerce.

“Because RhodeWorks fails to fairly apportion its tolls among bridge users based on a fair approximation of their use of the bridges, was enacted with a discriminatory purpose, and is discriminatory in effect, the statute’s tolling regime is unconstitutional under the dormant Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution,” Smith wrote.

Rhode Island is the only state in the country with a truck-toll system like the one Smith struck down. The trucking industry fought it since 2018 in large part to prevent any other states from trying their own.

On Wednesday the industry celebrated.

“This is a tremendous day for our industry – not just here in Rhode Island, but across the country – had we not prevailed, these tolls would have spread across the country and this ruling sends a strong signal to other states that trucking is not to be targeted as a piggy bank,” Rhode Island Trucking Association President Chris Maxwell said in a news release.

And Rhode Island Republicans who had opposed the tolls and warned of this outcome for years got to say “I told you so.”

“As House Minority Leader in 2016 during the floor debate on this bill this is precisely what I and the rest of the House Republicans predicted would happen,” Rep. Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield, tweeted. “Barring an overturn on appeal this is a wholly preventable fiscal disaster for RI brought to you exclusively by Democrats.”

Senate GOP Leader Jessica de la Cruz warned that the ruling against tolling only trucks would spur ruling Democrats to instead toll all vehicles.   

“It was ridiculous that the General Assembly would adopt a plan that called for new tolls statewide and millions in debt with so little information,” de la Cruz said in a news release. “Anyone who tries to implement tolls on cars as a result of this court decision will face fierce opposition from our members.”

Although State House Democrats were not saying much about tolls, they promised that predictions of imminent car tolls would prove off the mark.  

“We want to be very clear: The governor and his administration do not support and would not implement a tolling program on passenger vehicles,” McKee spokesman Matt Sheaff said in an email. “As this ruling has just come out, our team is reviewing the decision and evaluating next steps.”

In a joint statement, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said the Assembly “prohibited the tolling of passenger cars, and regardless of the eventual outcome of this lawsuit, that will not change.”

Smith’s ruling did not say anything about the state having to repay any of the tolls it has collected; the DOT’s Pettengill said that wouldn’t happen.

General Treasurer Seth Magaziner on Wednesday said the state had considered borrowing against truck-toll revenue but never moved in that direction, so the ruling should not have any impact on bond covenants. 

The state hired Kapsch Traffic Com IVHS Inc. on a $69-million, 10-year contract to build, maintain and run the truck tolls. It was not immediately clear whether, if it comes to it, the contract would cover dismantling.   

In addition to the cost of setting up the tolls, the state had paid outside legal counsel Adler Pollock & Sheehan PC $7.1 million as of May to defend the state against the truckers’ lawsuit. The legal fight included a battle to prevent Raimondo and former House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello from having to give depositions. 

The truck tolls were a signature policy of former Gov. Gina Raimondo, who is now U.S. commerce secretary, and one of her first big legislative initiatives when she took office in 2015.  

Smith’s decision for the trucking industry hinged at least in part on changes the General Assembly made to the original 2015 tolling bill to mollify local truckers and businesses, such as construction, that use heavy vehicles. 

Before the toll legislation was passed in early 2016, lawmakers exempted all vehicles except tractor trailers – including dump trucks and box trucks. They also capped tolls at $40 per day and charged a vehicle only once in each direction at each gantry. All of those changes benefited local businesses over out-of-state operators.

“Rhode Island has a legitimate – even compelling – interest in the maintenance of its ailing bridges,” Smith wrote. “But there is no reason that interest cannot be served by a tolling system that does not offend the Commerce Clause. Indeed, many states have implemented tolling systems that fairly apportion their costs across various users and do not discriminate against interstate commerce.”

Whether the Rhode Island truck tolling system could survive a legal challenge if it charged all heavy trucks and lifted all caps – as in the original plan – is unclear. 

The state could also seek help from Congress, but that path may be even murkier.



Progressive push left sputters against establishment Democrats in RI primary

Patrick Anderson

The Providence Journal

The Democratic Party establishment struck back Tuesday against a progressive push to take over the State House.

While moderates Dan McKee and Brett Smiley edged out more liberal primary rivals for governor and Providence mayor, centrist and conservative Democrats in the General Assembly beat back more than two dozen challenges from the left.

Among them were House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, who fended off progressive challengers with 70% and 59% of the vote in their races, respectively.

Labor unions re-established their traditional influence in the party with McKee’s win and the success of union-backed incumbent lawmakers.

That’s not to say it was close to a clean sweep for the establishment.

Progressives won a handful of races, most in open Assembly seats, and on net the State House will likely scooch to the left again by around three seats, depending on how things turn out in the November general election.  

Three long-serving House members, Reps. Anastasia Williams of Providence, Jean Philippe Barros of Pawtucket and James McLaughlin of Cumberland, were ousted by left-aligned challengers. The margin in McLaughlin’s race was a paper thin 34 votes and  on Wednesday he requested a recount, according to the Board of Elections.

But the wave of progressive primary wins that began in 2016 subsided somewhat and the “revolution” promised by the Rhode Island Political Cooperative did not materialize.

“From the top of the ballot to the bottom, centrist or establishment Democrats enjoyed lots of success while progressive victories (particularly among progressive challengers as opposed to incumbents) were few and far between,” Providence College political science professor Adam Meyers wrote in an email. “This is genuinely surprising given the trends we were seeing in the 2018 and 2020 primaries, when progressive challengers (Coop candidates, etc.) enjoyed lots of triumphs. My sense is that the progressive activist community in RI (and nationally) is finding it harder to mobilize voters in the post-Trump era.”


2022 Rhode Island Primary Election Results

Politics Updated on Sep 13, 2022 10:59 PM EDT — Published on Sep 13, 2022 2:49 PM EDT

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee eked out a victory in his Democratic primary on Tuesday, beating back strong challenges from a pair of opponents as he seeks his first full term in office.

McKee, the former lieutenant governor who became the state’s chief executive a year and a half ago when two-term Gov. Gina Raimondo was tapped as U.S. commerce secretary, will be the heavy favorite in the liberal state in November against Republican Ashley Kalus, a business owner and political novice.

McKee edged out former CVS executive Helena Foulkes, who saw a late surge in the polls and won a last-minute endorsement from The Boston Globe’s editorial board. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who was seeking to become the first Latina governor in New England, finished a close third.

In the last primaries before the November general election, voters in Rhode Island were choosing nominees for statewide offices, U.S. House, the state Legislature and local positions. New Hampshire and Delaware also held primaries on Tuesday.

With his victory, McKee avoided becoming the first governor to lose his primary since 2018, when Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer narrowly lost the Republican nomination to Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who went on to lose the general election to Democrat Laura Kelly. Like McKee, Colyer took over when the sitting governor resigned for another job.

In his campaign, McKee touted his leadership in navigating the state’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic after he was sworn in as governor in March 2021. Foulkes said she would work to find new ways for companies to invest in Rhode Island and help existing companies find new markets. Gorbea argued the state needed better leadership on issues like housing, education and climate change.

Kalus easily defeated her lone Republican rival, Jonathan Riccitelli, whom the Globe reported had been arrested dozens of times since 2000 under a different name, on charges ranging from obstructing police officers to assault, according to court records.

Kalus, who owns a COVID-19 testing company that’s in a dispute with the state over a canceled contract, moved to Rhode Island last year from Illinois and previously worked for former Illinois Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. She said Rhode Island needs a fighter like her, now more than ever, because every day gets harder for working families.

In another top race on Tuesday, voters were choosing nominees in the 2nd Congressional District for the seat being vacated by Democratic Rep. Jim Langevin, who is retiring after more than 20 years representing the district. Langevin was the first quadriplegic to serve in Congress.

State Treasurer Seth Magaziner, who was endorsed by Langevin, won the crowded Democratic primary. Republican Allan Fung, the former mayor of Cranston, was unopposed in his bid for the Republican nomination. National Republican leaders think this is their best chance to flip the seat in more than three decades. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy visited Rhode Island in August to raise money for Fung.

Magaziner had been running for governor but switched races after Langevin’s announcement to try to keep the seat in Democratic control. Magaziner told supporters Tuesday night that the election is about values and preserving democracy for the next generation.

In the 1st Congressional District, Democratic U.S. Rep. David Cicilline will face Republican Allen Waters in November. Both were unopposed Tuesday. Cicilline is seeking his seventh term.