2009-04-02 / Front Page

RITBA must defend against class-action lawsuit

Suit claims discriminatory toll setting practices
By Adrienne Downing

The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority announced Monday that it has been named the defendant in a class action lawsuit alleging the resident-rate tolls on the Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge are unconstitutional.

"A lawsuit was filed stating that the bridge and turnpike authority is discriminatory in its rate setting practices. The authority worked with attorneys setting the toll rate structure and we believe we are on sound legal footing. It would be inappropriate to make any further comments because of the filing," RITBA Executive Director Buddy Croft said.

RITBA Chairman David Darlington also stood firm regarding the toll rates. "We strongly believe in the merits of our position, and we believe that Rhode Island residents are entitled to a discounted rate, and we intend to defend that position," Darlington said.

In a 22-page filing with the United States District Court in Rhode Island, attorneys for Isabel Cohen, a resident of Fairfield County in southwestern Connecti- cut, allege that Cohen's and other class action members' rights were violated when RITBA charged them a higher toll rate to visit Newport as a tourist destination. In particular, the lawsuit said Cohen "has paid tolls at the Newport Bridge using her E-Z Pass transponder in the course of interstate, round trip travel from Connecticut to Rhode Island for the purpose of tourism. In the course of interstate travel, during which she was assessed the non-resident toll fee, plaintiff purchased a variety of goods and services, including food, fuel, personal training, jewelry, and beverages."

The lawsuit said that RITBA's toll-pricing structure "violates the dormant commerce clause of the United States Constitution … by granting substantial discounts to Rhode Island residents, denying discounts to non-resident travelers utilizing the same facility."

Both Rhode Island resident and out-of-state travelers are permitted to purchase Rhode Island E-ZPass transponders for use at the bridge, but Rhode Island residents must establish proof of residency to receive the discounted 83-cent rate. Proof of residency can include a utility bill, tax bill, copy of a lease or rental agreement or a Rhode Island college identification card.

Non-residents who make less than 31 trips in 30 calendar days are charged the $1.75 rate. Outof state travelers who make more than 31 trips during the same period are charged under the Rhode Island commuter rate and receive a discounted rate of 91-cents per crossing.

The suit requests an injunction requiring any toll revenue collected from non-resident travelers, in excess of the resident rate, to be placed in a trust pending the outcome of the case. It also claims the plaintiffs in the case are entitled to a refund of the excess tolls and pre and post judgment interest.

The suit was filed by Rhode Island attorney Stephen White's Warwick office, and also lists Stull, Stull and Brody, a law firm with offices in New York and Los Angeles.

A recent similar lawsuit was filed in Massachusetts by the Stull, Stull and Brody firm on behalf of a Rhode Island resident claiming tolls on the Tobin Bridge and the Sumner and Ted Williams tunnels illegally benefits residents in those areas.

According to a report in the Providence Journal, Carol L. Surprenant, a Narragansett resident, filed a class action suit March 20 against the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and the Massachusetts Port Authority, accusing them of "blatant" discrimination in the tolls they charged out-of-state residents.

Surprenant, a retired University of Rhode Island business professor, filed the lawsuit alleging that the agencies charge up to 10 times what state residents pay, in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Non-residents using the Newport Bridge are charged just over two times the resident toll rate.

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