Are truck tolls really taxes or are they user fees?

Under the theory of quantum physics, light is said to have a dual nature: sometimes it is a particle and sometimes it is a wave.

It turns out that Rhode Island’s truck tolls have a similar, mysterious dual nature.

When it was politically expedient, tolls were a user fee and absolutely not a tax. That was the case in 2016 at a hearing by the Rhode Island House Finance Committee.

But fast forward to 2019 and tolls suddenly and strangely became taxes in a federal court where they had to be legally justified. In his decision to dismiss the trucking industry’s lawsuit March 19, the federal judge specifically called Rhode Island’s truck tolls “a highly targeted and sophisticated tax,” the State of Rhode Island had argued.

Yet tolls quickly became user fees again less than a week later when the CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, which represents toll facility owners and operators, hailed the judge’s decision, commenting, “we remain hopeful that no court will deny Rhode Island, or any state, the ability to assess user fees including tolls to rebuild its vital bridges and highways.”

Rhode Island businesses and residents should marvel at the convenient, dual nature of truck tolls, which should certainly become a subject of study in their own right by quantum physicists.

Christopher J. Maxwell

The writer is president of the Rhode Island Trucking Association.

The  following letter by Chris Maxwell was printed in the Providence Journal on 3/31/2019.