PORTSMOUTH — A March 15, 2013 letter in which the Town of Portsmouth argues that a Sakonnet River Bridge toll is illegal has become a point of contention in the town’s federal lawsuit to squash the toll.
According to Town Solicitor Kevin Gavin, the defendants in the case — which include officials from the R.I. Department of Transportation (RIDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) — failed to include the letter in the administrative record filed in federal court.
The letter — signed by Town Council President James Seveney and Town Administrator John Klimm and addressed to Daniel Berman, division administrator of FHWA, and Michael Lewis, director of RIDOT — presents the whole crux of the town’s argument, Mr. Gavin said.
In the letter, the town quotes from a 2003 Final Environmental Impact Statement that “unequivocally and officially eliminated tolling from further consideration” and evaluated other financing options.
“It raised the issue of the whole illegality of the tolls,” Mr. Gavin said Monday of the letter. “The original record of decision says a toll is eliminated from consideration.”
But in December, when FHWA and RIDOT filed and certified with U.S. District Court of Rhode Island an administrative record consisting of thousands of pages, the letter was nowhere to be found, Mr. Gavin said.
“I was almost questioning myself as I was going through three boxes of documents and it wasn’t there,” said Mr. Gavin. “They’re just trying to keep that out of the administration record.”
Last month, the town filed a motion to compel FHWA and RIDOT to complete the administrative record by including the town’s letter and any material that may relate to it.
On Friday, the defendants filed an objection to keep the letter out. “The March 15 letter on its face does not contain any information pertaining to the potential environmental impacts of establishing an AETC (all-electronic toll collection) system on the Sakonnet River Bridge,” stated the motion signed by Mr. Lewis and Mr. Berman.
The following day, Mr. Gavin filed the plaintiff’s reply memorandum, which argued that the defendants’ objection to including the letter had no merit.
The Town of Portsmouth’s suit to stop the tolls was filed in April 2013 in U.S. District Court of Rhode Island. The defendants are listed as Mr. Lewis and Mr. Berman; Victor Mendez, administrator of the FHWA; Buddy Croft, executive director of the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA); as well as RITBA as a whole.
At a standstill
Mr. Gavin said “nothing’s really happening” with the lawsuit, noting that U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux has indicated he wants to see what comes out of the work being done by the Special Legislative Commission to Study the Funding for East Bay Bridges before issuing a ruling. The panel was established last year to allow lawmakers and state officials an opportunity to investigate all types of equitable and reliable funding mechanisms and strategies to support Rhode Island’s bridges.
The town, however, still has a problem with the current 10-cent toll which RITBA authorized as a place-keeper until April 1.
“Even though it’s 10 cents, the toll is being charged,” said Mr. Gavin, adding that the town will continue to oppose any toll on the span.
“We’re just trying to keep things on the front burner and to remind people that this thing is not going away,” he said.