United States District Court, D. Rhode Island
AMERICAN TRUCKING ASSOCIATIONS, INC.; CUMBERLAND FARMS, INC.; M&M TRANSPORT SERVICES, INC.; and NEW ENGLAND MOTOR FREIGHT, INC., Plaintiffs,
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
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.
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).
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).
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.
- Peter Alviti, in his official capacity as the Director of
RIDOT, and RITBA - 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
expounding on why imposing a “toll” did not
constitute a deprivation of property without due process, the