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The Last Word

One state's scheme threatens the whole industry

By Chris Spear

It is more than 1,400 miles from Little Rock to Providence, R.I. – more than 20 hours of driving to get from statehouse to statehouse, but what is happening there could have a profound effect on truckers in Arkansas and across the country.

In 2016, leaders in Rhode Island came up with RhodeWorks, a financing scheme to outsource funding for their failing infrastructure by tolling only large trucks. And not all large trucks – but just combination trucks mostly from outside Rhode Island. Politicians in Rhode Island made it clear, the brunt of the tolls was going to be borne not by citizens of Rhode Island, or even businesses in Rhode Island, but by out-of-staters who need to travel to or through the state.

It was robbing Peter to pay for Paul’s roads – if Peter lived three states away and was asked to deliver Paul’s groceries.

So the American Trucking Associations did what we always do when our industry is targeted – we fought back, by suing the state for attempting to impose these discriminatory, unconstitutional tolls.

The state of Rhode Island argued this suit should be handled in their courts – an argument that was rejected, so soon we will make our case in the federal court that Rhode Island is violating the Commerce Clause of the Constitution by favoring in-state businesses over ones from out of state, and by forcing tractor-trailers alone to pay for bridge projects that all motorists benefit from.

Trucks make conspicuous targets for tolling schemes like this. ATA helped defeat a proposal for truck-only vehicle miles traveled taxes at the federal level, but other states are watching what happens in Rhode Island to see if they can get away with this kind of discrimination.

Tolling boosters argue trucks don’t pay their fair share, an absurd accusation when trucks pay roughly half of taxes that fund the Highway Trust Fund. In addition, there exists a system – the International Fuel Tax Agreement and International Registration Plan – that ensures the fuel taxes and other fees trucks pay are fairly divided by the states where they operate. States like Rhode Island and others are getting their fair share from the trucking industry and then some.

Those same boosters will argue that trucks do most or all of the damage to the roads – which the National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board has stated is a “prevalent misconception.” TRB highlighted that roads will not be damaged by the traffic they are designed to support – if those roads are properly designed and cared for.

One of the reasons these advocates turn to tolls, and to truck-only tolls, is that they can’t make the tough political choices to properly fund their infrastructure. But rather than make the tough choices, they shift the bill to drivers who can’t vote them out.

The stakes could not be higher in ATA’s lawsuit against Rhode Island. If the state’s discriminatory tolls are allowed to stand, other states will have a blueprint to pile tolls on our industry. We will soon be undertaking arguments in federal court.  While this battle has been going on for years, it is far from over.

This kind of litigation is important, and it requires significant resources. The ATA Litigation Center is aggressively raising funds to take on and win this fight, and we need your support. With your help, we will be able to ensure states do not target our industry as a piggy bank now or in the future.


Chris Spear is the president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations.

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Arkansas Trucking Association
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