PORTSMOUTH — Town officials have asked their friends in Washington for some help — again — in putting an end to the Sakonnet River Bridge tolls.
At issue is the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) refusal to respond to a March 15, 2013 letter to FHWA and the R.I. Department of Transportation (RIDOT) that claimed the implementation of a toll on the span would be illegal.
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.
The Town of Portsmouth’s suit to stop the tolls was filed the following month — April 2013 — in U.S. District Court of Rhode Island. The defendants are listed as Michael Lewis, RIDOT director; Daniel Berman, division administrator for FHWA; 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.
The March 2013 letter, however, was not included in the administrative record that FHWA and RIDOT filed and certified with U.S. District Court of Rhode Island in December. (In January, the town filed a motion to compel FHWA and RIDOT to complete the administrative record by including the town’s letter and any related material.)
In December, both Sen. Jack Reed and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse wrote to Mr. Mendez on behalf of the Town of Portsmouth, asking him why the FHWA would not respond to the March 2013 letter from the town. In January, Carlos Machado, division administrator for FHWA, responded by saying that many of the issues brought up in the letter were already argued in court and that it would be inappropriate to respond since the matter was in litigation.
In a March 12 letter, Town Council President James Seveney and Town Administrator John Klimm ask senators Reed and Whitehouse for their assistance. They also take the FHWA to task for its latest letter, which they claim was inaccurate and misleading.
“Quite frankly, we are surprised and dismayed that a federal agency or official would respond with such inaccuracy to an inquiry by two United States senators, concerning matters of fact that are in the public recording and easily checked,” the town’s letter states.
As for FHWA’s claim that it was inappropriate to respond to the March 2013 letter because of litigation, Mr. Seveney and Mr. Klimm pointed out that it was sent more than a month before the town filed suit.
The town also took issue with Mr. Machado’s statement that the federal district court judge, in his bench decision, found that RIDOT and FHWA has complied with the law with respect to the environmental determinations and the tolling issue.
“This simply is not the case,” the town’s letter states. “As the court transcript clearly demonstrates, the judge did not address in any fashion the merits of the substantive legal issue that any toll on this bridge is prohibited under the Federal-Aid Highway Act.”
Also, Mr. Machado’s suggestion that the “legal issues raised in the town’s letter were addressed in the April 22, 2013 Revised Record of Decision (or in the reevaluation prepared by RIDOT’s consultant) is, likewise, completely erroneous,” states the town’s letter.
Mr. Seveney and Mr. Klimm concluded by reiterating the town’s position that the bridge toll is illegal under federal law. “The town retained prominent federal transportation experts, including a former chief counsel of the FHWA, who confirmed that our legal position is correct,” they stated. “As its January 23 response shows, FHWA continues to duck this issue.”