The significant differences between  Rhode Island’s unconstitutional bridge tolls and Louisiana’s Calcasieu Bridge
Photo 150056600 © Mihai Andritoiu |


The significant differences between Rhode Island’s unconstitutional bridge tolls and Louisiana’s Calcasieu Bridge

A federal judge ruled Rhode Island’s truck tolls on interstate bridges unconstitutional, but Louisiana's Calcasieu River Bridge plan is significantly different.

A revised public-private partnership agreement between the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development and Calcasieu Bridge Partners to rebuild the Calcasieu Bridge passed the Louisiana Joint Transportation Committee on Jan. 30.

The hearing came after Louisiana lawmakers had voted down a similar proposal in Oct. 2023. Part of the reason the initial proposal failed was bogus claims about the project’s legality and constitutionality. In the end, state lawmakers listened to the facts. But the misleading claims used in Louisiana are likely to come up again. Therefore, they are worth addressing and correcting. 

The Calcasieu Bridge megaproject, which I’ve written about at length in the past, would replace the aging four-lane I-10 bridge in Calcasieu Parish in seven years. Public-private partnerships (P3s) like this provide financing up front (in this case, from a mix of federal grants and Calcasieu Bridge Partners’ investment) to start working on the project immediately. Such projects require a revenue stream, typically in the form of user fees like tolls.

Opponents of the Louisiana public-private partnership argued a 2022 ruling by Judge William Smith of the State District Court for the District of Rhode Island that Rhode Island’s RhodeWorks program was illegal would render Louisiana’s proposed tolling of an Interstate bridge similarly unlawful. 

But what happened in Rhode Island bears little resemblance to the Calcasieu Bridge proposal. Nearly a decade ago, Rhode Island began looking to raise more revenue for the state’s highways and started a program called RhodeWorks. As Jeff Davis at the Eno Center for Transportation wrote, these tolls “were not evenly distributed.” 

The Rhode Island toll also failed to pass the test of an actual user fee, which requires the toll to be based on some fair approximation of the use of the facilities for which it is paid. RhodeWorks failed that test because the state was tolling only the heaviest of trucks that make up a small percentage of traffic. It was anything but a fair approximation of use because it neglected to toll other users, such as private automobiles and smaller privately-owned trucks, as some examples.

Likewise, tolls were only levied on the heaviest trucks, and regardless of how many times they used the bridge, trucks were charged a toll only once per day.

Rhode Island’s RhodeWorks imposed tolls on certain bridges to fund other bridges throughout the state, diverting the revenue generated. Tolls were collected on 12 bridges (nine on I-95) but were used to fund work on other bridges throughout the state.

The Calcasieu River Bridge P3 differs in a few key factors. First, toll revenue from the bridge would be used strictly to pay for the new bridge. It would not be utilized as a money pot for the state to draw on to fund the rehabilitation or maintenance of other bridges or roads in the state. Second, all vehicles crossing the bridge must pay a toll, not just Class 8+ trucks. All users would be paying their share of the tolls levied. Thus, the problems that made Rhode Island’s RhodeWorks unconstitutional simply are not present in the Calcasieu Bridge P3 proposal.

Opponents of the projects in Rhode Island and Louisiana have also argued that it’s illegal to add tolls to Interstate highways, but the laws are more complex than just a simple ban. Laws prohibiting tolls on an Interstate have been changed repeatedly over the past several decades. Yes, there is still a ban on toll facilities on existing highways that had received federal aid dollars.

The bridge was originally built as part of U.S. Route 90 and grandfathered into the Interstate Highway system, making the bridge an exception to the rule. Specifically, 23 U.S.C. §129 (a)(1)(E) states that tolls shall be permitted in the case of “… reconstruction or replacement of a toll-free bridge or tunnel and conversion of the bridge or tunnel into a toll facility”. Additionally, existing capacity can be tolled as an exception to the toll ban for:

  • Reconstruction, restoration, or rehabilitation of an existing toll road;
  • Reconstruction of a toll-free federal-aid highway (except those on the Interstate system) and conversion of the highway to a toll facility; and
  • The conversion of high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on highways, bridges, or tunnels to a toll facility. 

There seems to be a clear precedent for the project being toll-financed despite claims from opponents.

While there are plenty of valid concerns, ranging from proposed toll rates to project build dates, concerns about the legality of the project or the tolls used to finance it are not among them. These complaints distract from more grounded concerns from stakeholders and locals in the area.