Federal judge dismisses suit over Rhode Island's truck tolls

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit over Rhode Island's new truck tolls Tuesday, finding that the court lacks jurisdiction and the case should be brought in the state court system.

Rhode Island began tolling trucks in June as part of an infrastructure plan to repair bridges and roads. The American Trucking Associations, a national industry group, sued in U.S. District Court. The national industry group did not immediately say Tuesday whether it would re-file the lawsuit in state court.

American Trucking Associations argued in its lawsuit that the tolls violate the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause and pose a discriminatory and disproportionate burden on out-of-state operators and truckers. Cumberland Farms, New England Motor Freight and M&M Transport Services are also plaintiffs.

The state argued that the federal court cannot restrain the collection of state taxes, such as tolls, and state matters should be adjudicated in state court.

Christopher Maxwell, president of the Rhode Island Trucking Association, said the judge's decision doesn't speak to the merits of the claims, only the venue in which to bring them. He said it'll be up to American Trucking Associations to decide how to proceed. The Rhode Island Trucking Association is a member of the national group.

Connecticut officials have been watching the Rhode Island case closely. Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont, who ran for office supporting tolls only on big rigs, included two tolling options for lawmakers to consider in his new budget: tolling just trucks or tolling everyone. Lamont's administration has estimated Connecticut could reap $200 million in annual revenue from truck tolls and about $800 million from tolls on cars and trucks.

In recent weeks, the governor has made it clear he is now leaning toward supporting the more wide-ranging tolls to help generate the revenue needed to address Connecticut's transportation infrastructure needs.

Maribel La Luz, a spokeswoman for Lamont, said Tuesday's dismissal of the truckers' lawsuit "confirms what we already believed to be true," that "the road to resolution of this case will be long and winding, and ultimately, we don't believe it will provide the clarity, or revenue, that Connecticut needs to truly enhance and upgrade its infrastructure system."

La Luz said Lamont's wider ranging tolling proposal "is the path forward if we are serious about supporting our state's economic growth and development, particularly when 40 percent of the costs for such an investment would be paid for by people who don't even live in our state."

The Connecticut General Assembly's Transportation Committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday on several bills that could lead to tolls on state highways. While none would institute truck-only tolls, the Rhode Island court decision is likely to come up during the debate.

In Rhode Island, only two out of 14 proposed toll gantries are in place. The governor's budget proposal estimates tolls will generate about $7 million in the current budget year and $25 million for the budget year starting July 1. The projections are much lower than previous revenue estimates due to delays in permitting and environmental assessments for the additional gantries.

Rhode Island lawmakers authorized the toll system in 2016 as part of a $5 billion, decade-long plan to rebuild crumbling roads and bridges, projecting then that the entire system would bring in $450 million over 10 years.

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AP Writers Susan Haigh in Hartford, Connecticut and Michelle R. Smith in Providence contributed to this report.