By Liz Cha and Eric Coffill
The United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee held that Tennessee’s sales tax on railroad carriers for the purchase or use of diesel fuel was not discriminatory under the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976 (4-R Act) even though it did not similarly apply to motor carriers because motor carriers are subject to a comparable excise tax on motor carrier fuel. This case was on remand from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Alabama Dept. of Revenue v. CSX Transportation, Inc., 135 S.Ct. 1136, 1143 (2015), holding that a rail carrier can show discrimination under the 4-R Act by demonstrating that it is subject to differential tax treatment compared to its competitors; although, tax disparity may be nondiscriminatory if competitors are subject to an alternate, comparable tax.
Railroad carriers are subject to a sales or use tax on their purchase, consumption or use of diesel fuel in Tennessee while competing motor carriers are exempt from such tax. However, in lieu of the sales tax, motor carriers pay a motor fuel tax. For the tax years at issue, the railroad carriers were subject to a 7% tax on diesel fuel and motor carriers paid a motor fuel tax of 18.4 cents per gallon. Despite the effect of varying fuel prices on the amount of taxes paid by railroad carriers and motor carriers in recent years, the court determined that the tax burden bore by motor carriers was historically higher than railroad carriers and that over the years the tax burden on both motor and railroad carriers was “roughly” equivalent. In addition, the court agreed with the Tennessee Department of Revenue that there was sufficient justification for a different tax imposed on railroad carriers because railroad carriers purposely choose to use dyed fuel instead of clear fuel, which is exempt from the sales and use tax. The railroad carriers could, like the motor carriers, use clear diesel fuel and be subject to the same tax scheme as motor carriers but choose not to do so to avoid a federal excise tax on the use of clear diesel fuel. Accordingly, the court determined that the Department provided sufficient justification for the sales tax on railroad carriers for their purchase or use of diesel fuel and that there was no violation of the 4-Act. Illinois Central Railroad Co. v. Tennessee Dep’t of Revenue, No. 3:10-cv-00197 (M.D. Tenn. April 12, 2017).