Will the Rhode Island truck tolls decision affect CT? Here's what we know

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The interstate transportation industry this week won a major victory in their four-year battle against Rhode Island's toll system, but it remains to be seen whether the federal court ruling immediately shutting down the trucks-only toll gantries in the Ocean State will translate into possibly ending Connecticut's plan to collect highway-user taxes from big rigs starting in January.

Opponents of the Connecticut law, projected to bring the state $90 million a year from the biggest trucks on state highways, predicted that the 91-page judge's decision that declared trucks-only tolls a violation of the U.S. Constitution's commerce clause will doom the plan, aimed at creating a new revenue source for highway and bridge maintenance at a time of decreasing revenue from motor fuel taxes.

But a Democratic lawmaker who crafted the 2021 Connecticut law said Friday that they are sure the state's Highway Use Tax could survive a similar court challenge because many other states have adopted similar sources of infrastructure revenue. And Gov. Ned Lamont's office said that since the Connecticut law will apply to both in-state and out-of-state truck traffic, it should not risk a constitutional challenge.

Joe Sculley, who as president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut represents state truckers, said Friday that in recent years, various tolling proposals were presented and rejected by state lawmakers, who in June of last year finally approved the highway use proposal scheduled to charge a per-mile rate that would increase based on a vehicle’s weight, ranging from 2.5 cents for vehicles weighing 26,000-28,000 pounds to 17.5 
cents for vehicles weighing more than 80,000 lbs.

"The tax will never bring in the amount of revenue projected," Sculley predicted. "To me this is such a strong ruling that I don’t think trucks-only tolls will ever be enacted here. Our members are generally fired up about this." Sculley doubts that out-of-state trucking companies will pay the tax, either deliberately or because they will be unaware of the requirement, while in-state truckers will pay, so the price of goods will escalate.

He noted that the trucking industry in Connecticut paid about $3.4 billion in annual wages in 2018, with the average pay close to $56,000. At the same time, state trucks paid more than $9,000 in annual state user fees for tractor trailers and nearly $9,000 in federal user fees. In the Rhode Island case, the judge ruled that it discriminated against out-of-state trucks, and violated constitutional protections for interstate commerce. 

State House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, a longtime toll opponent who also voted against the Highway Use Tax, said Friday he believes the planned program is already "an unmitigated disaster" as it is scheduled to take effect in a little more than three months. "No one is in any position to track it or pay it," Candelora said in a phone interview. "I think generally government needs to stop finding ways to be clever in raising revenue." Candelora said the state needs a broader-based tax policy.

Candelora said he's not sure how the Rhode Island case might impact the Connecticut plan, noting that state landscapers and the farming community are concerned that they will have to pay more at a time of rising inflation. Costs are generally passed on to consumers.

But state Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, who as co-chairman of the legislative Transportation Committee helped draft the Highway User Tax, said Friday that the possible implications of the Rhode Island ruling will soon be researched and that the state Department of Revenue Services is readying a tracking and payment system.

"My early inclination is that because our program will charge both in-state and out-of-state truckers, it's much more similar to a road usage charge than Rhode Island's nonresidents-only toll," said Lemar, citing a recent National Conference of State Legislatures discussion on the issue. "I feel pretty confident that ours is similar to other road-usage charges across the country. I do feel positive about a good, robust user fee that's administered fairly."

Gov. Lamont's office on Friday indicated the same optimism. Anthony Anthony, director of communications for Lamont, said the governor is not concerned about the Rhode Island case.

"The highway user fee that passed the General Assembly in 2021 is sufficiently different from the Rhode Island law that imposed a toll only only large commercial trucks at various bridge locations," Anthony said. "In addition, New York has a similar fee on heavy trucks that has been in place since the 1950s."

kdixon@ctpost.com  Twitter: @KenDixonCT