Trucking often bears the greatest burden in tolling schemes, says HDT Business/Washington...

Trucking often bears the greatest burden in tolling schemes, says HDT Business/Washington Contributing Editor David Cullen.

Graphic: HDT

Sometimes tolling schemes single out only truckers engaged primarily in interstate commerce. Sometimes they target all drivers in the form of congestion pricing. Either way, trucking bears the greater burden. In the former case, trucks pay where cars simply don’t. In the latter, trucks are penalized for conducting business while most motorists can opt for a public transportation option. 

Neither scenario is fair. We’re not talking about trucking companies paying tolls that are commensurate with the wear they cause to roads. That is established practice and it is entirely correct — and fair — that they do pay such levies. That is, at least when car owners also pay tolls reflecting their impact on the same roadways. It’s not fair — nor legal depending on court decisions — when only trucks are legally bound to pay.  

Likewise with the congestion pricing plans that toll any motor vehicle operating in a zone with restricted traffic. While car drivers by and large can switch to buses or subways or even ride shares, trucks must drive where their work takes them. And no consideration of that simple fact is given by these toll collectors. 

To start, consider Rhode Island’s infamous plan to electronically (via gantries) toll any commercial vehicle driving on any interstate highway in the state. The current state of play for truck tolls in the Ocean State is yet another court ruling. In October, a federal district judge ruled in favor of a legal challenge by the American Trucking Associations and two motor carriers, saying the trucks-only plan is unconstitutional. 

However, in early November, Rhode Island DOT filed an appeal. This seesaw has been in action for over four years now. Know that both sides are committed to nothing short of victory. 

While the Rhode Island scheme has not gone off smoothly, that’s no reason to think that some other state or jurisdiction won’t try the same tactic. It’s the same with a newer threat to tax fairness: congestion pricing. These schemes already exist in some major overseas cities. More narrowly, we’re referring to “cordon pricing” that applies to anyone driving within or into a congested area. This is what New York City aims to roll out across a higher-toll zone that would lay over a huge portion of Manhattan. 

The NYC plan is pitched at reducing traffic congestion in what it terms the “Central Business District” of Manhattan. It is defined as the area south of 60th Street comprised of Midtown (59th to 30th Streets) and Downtown (which starts at 30th Street), as well as the rest of Lower Manhattan, right to the water’s edge. 

That’s a lot of pavement on which to slap a princely cordon pricing toll. Some published estimates put the cost to trucks as high as $82 per trip.  

The opposition to this scheme was substantial even before rising inflation began to take its toll on individuals and businesses. At the start of November, that concern grew, with a coalition of 56 businesses, associations (including ATA), and elected officials weighing in against the proposal via a letter to the board that will decide on the plan.  

In part, the opposition piece stated that, “We all have different concerns about precisely how our industries and constituents will be affected by the new Congestion Tax… Beyond affecting drivers and the transportation industry, this new toll will increase labor costs for employers and the price of goods and services for residents of the CBD." 

The contentious cordon pricing plan may never hit the bricks in New York. But that doesn’t mean the effort won’t be reworked somehow, nor that cordon pricing won’t pop up in other cities across the country. 

This commentary appears in the November/December 2022 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.

More from David Cullen's Washington Watch Column: Is Time Up For No Overtime in Trucking? [Commentary]

About the author
David Cullen

David Cullen

[Former] Business/Washington Contributing Editor

David Cullen comments on the positive and negative factors impacting trucking – from the latest government regulations and policy initiatives coming out of Washington DC to the array of business and societal pressures that also determine what truck-fleet managers must do to ensure their operations keep on driving ahead.

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