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Trucking Tolls Take Their Toll

When states are down on revenue, or perhaps just in the mood to find a new revenue source, all-too-often tolls for heavy trucks wind up on the suggestion list. Take Rhode Island as one example. That state instituted an electronic truck toll on several highways in 2016 and their success in raising revenue with the model has inspired other states to do something similar.

Rhode Island installed two toll gantries over a section of Interstate 95 in the state back in June, and since then, they have generated nearly $2 million in revenue from heavy trucks. In fact, the state has generated nearly $87,000 more than they originally anticipated when they laid out and implemented the new toll plan. Flush with success, Rhode Island has announced that they want to place an additional dozen overhead toll gantries over six highway corridors within he next ten years. They anticipate this will bring in an additional $450 million into the state’s coffers.

The toll gantries work using automatic cameras to take a photograph of the truck’s license plate and then send a bill on to the vehicle’s registered owner, which would either be the owner-operator or trucking company. Of course, money is the motive, but what is the primary motivating factor pushing Rhode Island and other states to embrace truck tolling?

The RhodeWorks Plan

If there is one primary motivating factor in this trend to begin tolling commercial motor vehicles, it is the crumbling infrastructure that litters most states. Like many other states, Rhode Island faces an infrastructure crisis. With roads and bridges increasingly falling into disrepair, the situation is dire. And as the federal government has of yet been unable to come up with a national solution, states are taking matters into their own hands.

Rhode Island has specifically targeted heavy-duty trucks because they state that they are the vehicles that cause the most damage to the roads. According to the state DOT, the toll that is collected is associated with a bridge or group of bridges that need major repairs, so the revenues raised on said bridge or highway will directly fund repairs on those roadways.

The state expected to carry out nearly 569,000 tolls for the two introductory tolling stations, but wound up with just over 36,000 more than expected, which led to the net gain over what the state hoped to bring in. The program, called RhodeWorks, required 18-wheelers to pay up to $20 to cross the state traveling along Interstate 95. The cap for a single truck stands at $40 per day.

Rhode Island put the tolls in place in conjunction with a 10-year plan to repair deteriorating bridges in the state, which has the highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges of any state in the country. While they are still working on their 10-year plan, the 5-year plan expects to have 14 gantries up and running, which will generate $45 million per year in revenue for the state.

Trucking Interests Speak Out

Still, not everyone is happy with this – pun intended – state of affairs. Unsurprisingly, trucking groups and fleets have come out strongly against Rhode Island’s tolling efforts. ATA President and CEO Chris Spears came out stating that the truck-only tolls are unconstitutional and should be rolled back. As a result, the group plans to take the state to court to squash the tolls.

In the suit, ATA and several motor carriers and an agriculture company will argue that the plan violates the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause by discriminating against out-of-state trucking companies. Specifically, the group states that the tolls are designed in such a way that they do not fairly approximate motorists’ use of the roads.

In their court brief, they stated that the tolls impose a discriminatory and disproportionate burden on out-of-state operators and truckers who run interstate commerce. They went on to say that the tolls exclusively fall on the types of trucks that will be running interstate cargo, while passenger cars and smaller vehicles engaged in intrastate travel will not be affected.

The plan also limits the tolls collected from trucks that may be making multiple trips within the state in a single day, which makes it obvious that the toll plan is disproportionate in the benefits it provides to Rhode Island operators and others carrying out intrastate commerce.

Connecticut Gets in on the Game

Following Rhode Island’s lead, another New England state has now announced their own tolling plan. Connecticut’s newly-elected governor Ned Lamont (D) and the Democratic-held legislatures are now moving forward with a similar plan for their own state. While Rhode Island’s success with the measure has boosted the prospects in Connecticut, the fact is that the state has been looking at heavy-truck tolling for quite a while now.

It wasn’t until the midterm election ushered in an expanded Democratic majority in the house and new Democratic leadership in the Senate that it has become a serious consideration. Voters weighed in on the issue through their vote, considering Lamont was clear during the campaign that he planned to toll big trucks coming in from out-of-state and creating problems on their roads, all tax free with no compensation to the state for the damage.

Trucking advocates state, to the contrary, that it is not heavy trucks that damage roadways, but instead the chemicals that are applied during the winter that cause significant damage. Moreover, the main argument relies on the fact that these types of tolls will require 5 percent of the entities using the highways to pay 100 percent of the cost for repairing and upgrading them. This amounts to an increase of six times their share of taxes.

What happens now? Connecticut political observers expect lawmakers to put a measure forth sometime in 2019. And with widespread support from the voting public and from lawmakers, there is little chance that the measure will not pass.

Yet, not everyone in the state is excited about the idea of tolling heavy trucks. Republicans within the state remain opposed to tax increases of any sort. Other policy groups have come out stating that targeting big rigs for tolls will make the state’s infrastructure problems worse by pushing trucks to smaller roads to avoid congestion or tolls.

Still, Rhode Island officials have come out stating that they have not seen such a thing happen in their state. While the state’s DOT had expected to see around 300 trucks try to get around tolling stations, an internal study showed that only 4 large trucks actually did. Now, having put a toe in the litigation game in Rhode Island, the ATA has come out stating that they will fight this measure as well, should it see the light of day. They expect to again rely on the commerce clause to make their argument against it.

While the industry plans to vigorously fight the New England measures, Northeastern states are not the only ones expected to turn to heavy truck tolling as a potential solution.

Indiana Weights a Toll Program

Indiana, which is controlled by a Republican governor and legislature, has also come out stating that tolls for commercial motor vehicles will increase to help pay for infrastructure projects to fix and upgrade roadways within the state. Called the Next Level Connections project, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb has announced that it will be funded through a one-time toll increase for heavy vehicles with three or more axles traveling on the Indiana Toll Road. The measure went into effect on October 5th of 2018.

Like other commercial motor vehicle toll plans, this measure will not increase tolls for passenger vehicles traveling the Indiana Toll Road. Toll rates for passenger cars will remain among the lowest in the country. For heavy duty trucks, the rate will represent a 35% increase over current tolling rates. Indiana expects to pull in as much as $1 billion to fund road and infrastructure projects.

In fact, Indiana has already decided what it plans to do with the money, which includes updating a proprietary state transportation system, extending fiber optic cable along the toll road, and increasing overnight truck parking capacity by a fifth. In what may be a boon to trucking companies, they also plan to use the funds to create a smart truck parking system and put electric truck parking stations at the eight travel plazas within the state.

While the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association has attacked the plan, others have been more muted. Since Indiana’s plan puts money back into initiatives that trucking companies want, specifically addressing the growing truck parking problem, there has been less overt criticism of the bill. Still, many within the state, including other lawmakers, are not necessarily happy with it.

Will we see other states looking to fund infrastructure improvements using truck-only tolls? Right now, only time will tell. It is likely states will wait to see how the legal battle over these plans plays out, but as long as there is still no major movement on infrastructure, these ideas will at least remain on the table.

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