PORTSMOUTH — Its letters of protest ignored, the town has made good on its threat to pursue legal action to stop tolls from going in on the Sakonnet River Bridge.
To cheers and applause from the audience, the Town Council Monday night voted unanimously to direct Town Solicitor Kevin Gavin to submit a complaint in U.S. District Court of Rhode Island in a bid to stop the tolls, which are scheduled to go in as early as July.
Mr. Gavin said he filed the complaint with the court Tuesday morning.
The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) recently set a toll schedule that charges 75 cents for most Rhode Island E-ZPass customers. Drivers who have out-of-state transponders will pay $3.75 and those without a transponder will be charged $5.25.
The defendants are listed as Michael P. Lewis, director of the R.I. Department of Transportation (RIDOT); Daniel J. Berman, division administrator of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA); Victor Mendez, administrator of the FHWA; Buddy Croft, executive director of RITBA; as well as RITBA as a whole.
The suit alleges that the defendants’ actions to impose tolls on the bridge are in violation of both the Federal-Aid Highway Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The town is also seeking “injunctive relief” to remedy the defendants’ violations of law and the injuries caused by them.
“We cannot sit back any further,” said council member David Gleason before the vote. “We’re being used for the money that comes out of this island for other projects. We just built this low-maintenance bridge … to pay for every other project in the state.”
The action follows up letters Mr. Gavin had sent to RIDOT and FHWA in March and another one in April to RITBA. The town never heard back.
“We never got any response back from our letters. We’ve heard nothing from no one,” said Town Council James Seveney.
Several residents thanked the council for its decision to legally fight the tolls.
“A broad spectrum of people in the East Bay is resisting these tolls. A lot of people think it’s a done deal. It’s not,” said Larry Fitzmorris, adding that the General Assembly will ultimately decide the matter.
Antone Viveiros of Middletown, chairman of STOP (Sakonnet Toll Opposition Platform), agreed.
“Putting a toll on the Sakonnet RIver Bridge is putting a financial hardship on the East Bay,” he said.
Kathleen Melvin said the town has been taken advantage of in the fight over tolls. “Unfortunately if you live in a small town, it seems to me you’re extremely vulnerable,” she said.
Hearing at State House Thursday
Ms. Melvin urged council members and residents to attend a House Finance Committee hearing that will consider two toll-related bills. The hearing on H-5146 and its companion bill, S-0242, starts at 1 p.m. Thursday, April 25, in Room 35 at the State House.
STOP is organizing a bus ride to Providence to help local people attend the hearing. A bus will leave Stop & Shop in Middletown at 11 a.m., Clements’ Marketplace in Portsmouth at 11:15 a.m., and the park-and-ride lot on Fish Road, Tiverton, at 11:30 a.m. For information or if you need a ride, call 683-1764.
“Hopefully if some of you are available, you’ll get on the bus too,” Ms. Melvin told the council.
The town is basing its objection to the tolls on the fact that in 2003, RIDOT’s and FHWA’s final environmental impact statement (FEIS) regarding the bridge plan “unequivocally and officially eliminated tolling from further considering.”
Toll collections were considered as a means to finance construction and maintenance costs in a draft environmental impact statement, but not in the final plan, according to the town.
Furthermore, in August 2003 FHWA issued a “record of decision” (ROD) on the FEIS. “Since there was strong public opposition to tolling as demonstrated through public hearing comments, additional financing options have been identified in the FEIS. The use of toll collection as a finance means has been eliminated from further consideration at the direction of the Governor of the State of Rhode island. The FHWA and RIDOT have committed to fund this project through Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles,” stated the ROD.