RhodeWorks creates a new reservoir of state power; the ability to tax our movement. While the crosshairs now fix upon long-haul Class-8 trucks and above, history teaches that our government – insatiable for more and more of our families’ hard-earned money – will eventually toll our passenger cars.
Although our current leaders promise passenger cars won’t be tolled, their commitment isn’t binding on future leaders. The only way to secure this promise is to constitutionally require that voters must approve any tolling expansion – similar to how we already must approve any gambling expansion.
Regrettably, just such a constitutional amendment to protect our passenger cars was defeated during the House RhodeWorks debate. Instead, a cynical statutory voter-approval requirement was inserted – a provision that can simply be repealed by the very same future legislature that would seek to expand tolling. All of which demonstrates that our leaders aren’t truly committed to never tolling cars.
We may shortly face just such a tolling expansion if a court finds certain RhodeWorks provisions unlawful in the contemplated lawsuit by the American Trucker Association.
Two serious challenges to RhodeWorks exist under the U.S. Constitutions Dormant Commerce Clause, which generally prohibits state discrimination against interstate commerce.
First, solely tolling long-haul trucks may unlawfully discriminate against interstate commerce. Long-haul trucks predominately serve interstate commerce, while smaller trucks mostly serve local commerce. By only tolling long-haul trucks, the state largely shifts its infrastructure repair burden onto interstate commerce and off local commerce. Such protectionism – which left unchecked would trigger a wave of other states enacting similar measures – is usually prohibited so that interstate commerce may flourish. Accordingly, a court will probably find RhodeWorks unlawful unless additional vehicle classes are also tolled.
Second, daily toll limits may also unlawfully discriminate against interstate commerce. RhodeWorks includes a daily statewide toll limit of $40 and restricts collections to one toll per-facility per-day. Thus, local trucks that intensively use our roads will pay less per toll than those that just pass through Rhode Island. A court will likely strike down these daily limits as discriminatory forced subsidies to local commerce by interstate commerce. Consequently, local truckers will then face a dramatic increase in their cost of tolls, and the legislature will be compelled to expand tolls onto other vehicle classes to lessen the burden.
These legal disputes will eventually be resolved. The only responsible way to proceed is to resolve them now, before the state spends over $38 million on toll gantries and becomes addicted to toll revenues. Waiting until after installation of the full RhodeWorks tolling network will ensure the legal deficiencies are cured by the expansion of tolls onto other vehicle classes, possibly including our passenger cars, rather than abandoning tolls altogether.
Thankfully, the state can now test the legality of RhodeWorks anywhere in the state by erecting the former Sakonnet River Bridge toll gantry in order to spur the truckers’ legal challenge.
Failure to install this test-gantry before the full RhodeWorks tolling network would disregard the substantial risks we face. It might also indicate that the future fix has been in all along; that an adverse judicial decision will be the pretext to expand tolling. Given that the Rhode Island Department of Transportation won’t release its legal opinion on RhodeWorks – coupled with the general history of Rhode Island politicians and their special interests squandering the peoples money – we should be extremely concerned if the test-gantry isn’t first installed.
While no one disputes the need to fix our bridges, we disagree on how to pay for it. We House and Senate Republicans and independents developed a responsible plan to use existing state funds – without cutting one social program or vital government function! The revelation this past spring of over $200 million in Medicaid insurer overpayments is a shining example of the type of waste we sought to combat.
Instead of making the hard choices to prioritize, our Democratic colleagues instead opted to expand the states taxing authority, with guaranteed future lawsuits and the jeopardy of a court-compelled expansion of the vehicles Rhode Island tolls. Despite our disagreements, if R.I. goes forward with the RhodeWorks tolling network, we must protect our taxpayers and proceed cautiously by first installing the test-gantry.
Blake A. Filippi is an independent state representative from Block Island. He faces no opponent on Nov. 8.