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American Trucking Associations, Inc. v. Alviti

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

March 19, 2019

AMERICAN TRUCKING ASSOCIATIONS, INC.; CUMBERLAND FARMS, INC.; M&M TRANSPORT SERVICES, INC.; and NEW ENGLAND MOTOR FREIGHT, INC., Plaintiffs,
v.
PETER ALVITI, JR., in his official capacity as Director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation; and RHODE ISLAND TURNPIKE AND BRIDGE AUTHORITY, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          WILLIAM E. SMITH CHIEF JUDGE

         Before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (“Defendants' Motion”), ECF No. 21, to which Plaintiffs have objected, ECF No. 23. For the following reasons, Defendants' Motion is granted.

         I. Factual Background

         In 2016, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed the Rhode Island Bridge Replacement, Reconstruction, and Maintenance Fund Act of 2016 (“RhodeWorks Act”), R.I. Gen. Laws § 42-13.1-1 et seq., to redress the fact that 23 percent of Rhode Island bridges are “classified as structurally deficient” and the sources of revenue on which the state had historically relied to fund its transportation infrastructure are insufficient to fund the necessary maintenance and improvements to those bridges. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 42-13.1-2(2)-(7). The General Assembly found that large commercial trucks “cause in excess of seventy percent (70%) of the damage” to Rhode Island's roads and bridges but contributed “less than twenty percent (20%) of the state's total annual revenues to fund transportation infrastructure.” R.I. Gen. Laws § 42-13.1-2(8). The General Assembly also found that, even after making several changes to the state's funding strategy, there still existed a “funding gap between the revenue needed to maintain all bridges in structurally sound and good condition and the annual amounts generated by current dedicated revenue sources.” R.I. Gen. Laws § 42-13.1-2(7).

         To fill this funding gap, the General Assembly passed the RhodeWorks Act, which authorized RIDOT to collect tolls exclusively from “large commercial trucks” and expressly prohibited RIDOT from collecting similar tolls from any other type of vehicle, including “passenger cars.” R.I. Gen. Laws § 42-13.1-4, -5. Under the Act, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (“RIDOT”) is vested with the power to determine the locations and amounts of the tolls, while the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (“RITBA”) collects the tolls and deposits the revenues into a special account, called the “Rhode Island bridge replacement, reconstruction, and maintenance fund” (“RI Bridge Fund”), that can be used only to fund the “replacement, reconstruction, maintenance, and operation of Rhode Island bridges”; surplus revenues “shall not revert to the general fund but shall remain” in this special account. R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 42-13.1-4, -9; see also RITBA's Mot. Intervene 1, ECF No. 16. The Act imposes a $20.00 daily limit on the amount of tolls that a truck making a “border-to-border through trip” using I-95 may be charged. R.I. Gen. Laws § 42-13.1-4(c). In contrast, the Act imposes a $40.00 daily limit on the amount of tolls that a truck making other trips may be charged. R.I. Gen. Laws § 42-13.1-4(d).

         The first toll facilities became active in June 2018 and, at the time the Complaint was filed, tolls were being collected at two locations in southwestern Rhode Island on I-95. Compl. ¶¶ 61-62. Plaintiffs-various trucking, transport, and freight companies- filed a Complaint in July 2018 asking this Court to declare the tolls unconstitutional and to enjoin their collection. Compl. ¶¶ 1, 13. Plaintiffs contend that the tolling regime violates the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution because (1) it intends to discriminate in favor of in-state, and against out-of-state entities; (2) it has the practical effect of discriminating against trucks traveling in interstate commerce; and (3) it imposes excessive costs on interstate vehicles as it is not a fair approximation of the payers' uses of the tolled facilities. Compl. ¶¶ 5-7; see U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 3.

         Defendants - Peter Alviti, in his official capacity as the Director of RIDOT, and RITBA[1] - have moved to dismiss on three grounds. First, they argue that the tolls constitute “a tax under State law” as described in the Tax Injunction Act (“TIA”) and, therefore, the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to enjoin the “assessment, levy or collection” of those tolls. 28 U.S.C. § 1341; Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss (“Defs.' Mot.”) 7-25, ECF No. 21. Second, even if the tolls are not “taxes” under the TIA, they argue that principles of comity and federalism nonetheless require the Court to decline to exercise its jurisdiction. Defs.' Mot. 25-30. Third, Defendants argue that the Eleventh Amendment protects them from suit. Defs.' Mot. 30-38.

         II. Discussion

         A. Tax Injunction Act

         The TIA provides: “The district courts shall not enjoin, suspend or restrain the assessment, levy or collection of any tax under State law where a plain, speedy and efficient remedy may be had in the courts of such State.” 28 U.S.C. § 1341. The parties do not dispute that Rhode Island state courts offer a “plain, speedy and efficient remedy” for Plaintiffs' Commerce Clause claims. Therefore, the only question before the Court is whether the RhodeWorks tolls constitute “a tax” under the TIA.

         The question presents a close call, one which pits the actual language of the TIA and the context surrounding its enactment in the 1930s against several more modern decisions of the First Circuit that attempt to distinguish between fees and taxes. “The Supreme Court has not addressed the precise issue in dispute here, the means of defining a ‘tax' for purposes of the Tax Injunction Act.” See Am. Landfill, Inc. v. Stark/Tuscarawas/Wayne Joint Solid Waste Mgmt. Dist., 166 F.3d 835, 838 (6th Cir. 1999). It has, however, differentiated between a “tax” and a “toll” in other situations, most notably in its opinion in Sands v. Manistee River Imp. Co., 8 S.Ct. 113 (1887). In that case, a Michigan law allowed private corporations to clean up and improve sections of the Manistee River and then charge tolls to recoup the costs of that clean up. The improvements had to be approved by the governor and the attorney general; the toll amounts had to be set by an administrative agency and could only be imposed upon the improved section of the river based on the distance traveled; and the use of the improved area had to remain open to all travelers, subject to their payment of the tolls. Sands used the improved section of river to transport his logs downstream but failed to pay the requisite tolls, leading the plaintiff, Manistee River Import Co., to sue for the payment of the delinquent tolls.

         In his defense, Sands argued that the imposition of tolls, “without notice to the parties interested, or affording them any opportunity of contesting the validity or propriety of such tolls, ” amounted to a deprivation of property without due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Id. at 114-15; U.S. Const. amend. XIV. Sands further argued that the Michigan statute allowing for the imposition of tolls violated the Contracts Clause because a 1787 ordinance provided that navigable waters in the territory of Michigan would be forever free from taxes, imposts, and duties. According to Sands, the ordinance functioned as a contract between the federal government and the citizens of the territory and the imposition of tolls on the Manistee River amounted to a “tax” in violation of that contract. Sands, 8 S.Ct. at 115.

         The Court first held that the tolls did not violate the Due Process Clause because a toll did not constitute a taking of property “any more than there is a taking of property from a traveler in requiring him to pay for his lodgings in a public inn . . . The tolls exacted from the defendant are merely compensation for benefits conferred, by which the floating of his logs down the stream was facilitated.” Id. It further found that it was impossible to give Sands, or any other citizen “who may have occasion to use the stream, ” notice or opportunity to “present their views upon the tolls to be charged” because “[s]uch parties cannot be known in advance.” Id. at 116.

         In expounding on why imposing a “toll” did not constitute a deprivation of property without due process, the Court ...


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