Portsmouth considers lawsuit over tolls


PORTSMOUTH — The Town Council Monday night will consider filing a lawsuit to stop tolls from being implemented on the Sakonnet River Bridge.

The draft lawsuit prepared by Town Solicitor Kevin Gavin would be filed in U.S. District Court and names the Town of Portsmouth as the plaintiff.

Defendants are listed as Michael P. Lewis, director of the R.I. Department of Transportation (RIDOT); Daniel J. Berman, division director of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA); Victor Mendez, director of the FHWA; Buddy Croft, executive director of the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA); as well as RITBA as a whole.

The town seeks "a declaration that defendants’ actions to impose tolls on the new Sakonnet River Bridge are in violation of 23 U.S.C. § 301 of the Federal-Aid Highway Act and in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq. ('NEPA') and its implementing regulations. Plaintiff also seeks injunctive relief to redress defendants’ violations of law and the injuries caused by these violations."

On Wednesday, Mr. Gavin said the action follows up letters he sent to RIDOT and FHWA in March and another one last week to RITBA that "were ignored completely."

In the letters, the town based 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.

"It's now 10 years later and we don't think it's legally permissable to turn back the clock," said Mr. Gavin on Wednesday. "This is now a completed facility. Our legal argument is that tolls are prohibited at this point because it's a toll-free bridge that's been open to the public since September."

The process the defendants have followed to implement the tolls "as soon as possible" runs afoul of NEPA, said Mr. Gavin, adding that he's heard that RITBA wants to put the tolls in place by July.

Mr. Gavin said he believes the council will look favorably on the draft lawsuit on Monday.

"I do know that the Town Council has been unanimous in opposing tolls," he said.


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