Toll Discounts for RI Companies Would Almost Certainly Be Rejected by the Courts

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According to the Projo‘s Paul Edward Parker, the General Assembly will look for ways to “give relief to Rhode Island trucking companies”, as they review the plan to toll mid and large size commercial vehicles at numerous bridges Rhode Island.  However, recent jurisprudence in this area including one recent RI-specific case suggests that local-favoritism of any significant economic impact would almost certainly be ruled unconstitutional by the Federal courts under the Interstate Commerce Clause.

In 2009, US District Court Judge William E. Smith decided a lawsuit (Cohen v. Rhode Island Bridge and Turnpike Authority) about whether non-Rhode Island residents could be charged a substantially larger toll ($4.00) for using the Newport Bridge than residents were charged ($0.83).

Judge Smith centered the substance of his ruling on a three-part test from a 1994 Supreme Court case, Northwest Airlines, Inc. v. County of Kent, Mich

“A levy is reasonable under [Evansville-Vanderburgh Airport Auth. Dist. v. Delta Airlines, Inc.] if it (1) is based on some fair approximation of use of the facilities, (2) is not excessive in relation to the benefits conferred, and (3) does not discriminate against interstate commerce.”

In arguing that the Newport toll structure violated the third part of the test, the plaintiff cited  Oregon Waste Systems v. Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, where the Supreme Court in 1993 had ruled…

“We have held that the first step in analyzing any law subject to judicial scrutiny under the negative Commerce Clause is to determine whether it “regulates evenhandedly with only ‘incidental’ effects on interstate commerce, or discriminates against interstate commerce”….As we use the term here, “discrimination” simply means differential treatment of in-state and out-of-state economic interests that benefits the former and burdens the latter. If a restriction on commerce is discriminatory, it is virtually per se invalid.”

However, Judge Smith upheld the Newport toll structure, in part, because he found that the plaintiff had assumed a connection between a residency requirement and interstate commerce which was left unproven…

In this case Plaintiff has failed to identify a specific in-state commercial interest that is favored by the Newport Bridge toll discount at the expense of particular out-of-state competitors, so it cannot demonstrate that the discount discriminates against interstate commerce.

Suffice it to say that in the case of a substantial in-state versus out-of-state toll differential on commercial vehicles, in-state commercial interests favored at the expense of particular out-of-state competitors will be readily identifiable, and the test cited in Oregon Waste Systems that looks unfavorably on differential treatment will be applied.



  • Tommy Cranston

    Another joke.
    New Hampshire has better roads with a ZERO income tax, a ZERO sales tax and a dime less of gasoline tax.
    The problem is not that “we don’t have enough for the roads” the problem is that we lavish billions on cronies, government union piggies, welfare bums, illegal aliens, do nothing non-profits and corporate welfare to Democrat donors.
    That’s the progressive way.

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