2013-04-25 / Front Page

Portsmouth sues RITBA over Sakonnet tolling

Lawsuit says defendants are violating federal law
By Tim Riel

Following the decision last week to begin tolling the Sakonnet River Bridge, the Portsmouth Town Council voted unanimously Monday to sue the state’s bridge authority, the R.I. Department of Transportation, and the Federal Highway Administration.

The lawsuit claims the defendants are violating the National Environmental Policy Act. The law, passed in 1969, requires governmental bodies to complete an environmental impact statement before launching projects such as constructing a new bridge.

More than a decade ago, when the state decided to go forward with building a new span over the Sakonnet River, the Transportation Department completed and submitted an impact statement. However, according to David Darlington of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority, there was no mention of tolls in the statement.

In the complaint, the plaintiff says that the Federal Highway Administration issued on Aug. 11, 2003, a record of decision for the Sakonnet River Bridge rehabilitation project. “The final decision was to construct a new Sakonnet River Bridge as a toll-free facility,” the lawsuit claims.

Along with the three governmental bodies, the complaint also names four individuals as defendants: Michael Lewis, director of RIDOT, Buddy Craft, director of the bridge authority, and Daniel Berman and Victor Mendez of the Federal Highway Administration.

The lawsuit looks for injunctive relief to refrain the defendants from going any further with the project. If a judge were to issue the court order, construction of a gantry over the bridge would have to be postponed until the matter was settled in court.

“When talks started about a new Sakonnet River Bridge around 2002, DOT decided to eliminate tolling,” Darlington said. “So it did the impact study without tolls included in it. Portsmouth is saying because tolls were not studied, that it’s not an allowable use of the roadway to have tolls now.”

While Portsmouth claims the impact study does not adequately address tolling, Darlington said hours after the council voted to file the lawsuit, federal highway officials approved amendments made to the study in January.

Federal law allows amendments to be added to impact studies. When the state decided that tolling the Sakonnet River Bridge was an option, transportation officials submitted a reevaluated addendum that included the impact of tolling on the region.

The bridge authority is now in possession of the final revision of the impact statement, and according to Darlington, the Federal Highway Administration concluded that there are no major changes to the environmental impact. The administration had three concerns, all of which have been addressed.

The first concern was the bridge authority should offer rates for low-income motorists who will use the bridge. Federal officials concluded that the 75-cent rate meets the criteria. Second, the administration didn’t want tolling to impact the Tiverton school system, which transports its students to Portsmouth via the Sakonnet River Bridge. Darlington said Tiverton school buses would be exempt from tolling. Third, federal officials want the state Transportation Department to conduct a five-year study by monitoring side roads on either side of the bridge. If the state found in its study that tolling was impacting local traffic and adding diversion to side roads, it would have to reevaluate the system.

“Federal highway officials gave us their blessing,” said Darlington.

The complaint says the amended study still doesn’t sufficiently address tolling. “RIDOT did not consider or evaluate any cumulative impacts from future hikes in toll rates,” says the lawsuit.

Darlington disagrees. At the bridge authority’s board meeting last week, he said, “I don’t see another rate increase to be voted on in the future.”

On Tuesday, he elaborated on toll increases. “Obviously there will be toll increases to correspond with inflation, but I don’t see the board voting on an increase. The increases on the bridges will be determined by the Consumer Price Index.”

In 2015 a rate increase on the Sakonnet River Bridge will be determined by the Consumer Price Index. In subsequent years, adjustments will be made to keep up with inflation. Rates on the Newport Bridge are frozen until 2020 so the tolls on the two bridges can equalize. Currently, Newport Bridge users pay 83 cents with an E-ZPass, $4 without one. Sakonnet prices are 75 cents and $5.25.

Along with the lawsuit, the bridge authority’s plan to toll the Sakonnet River Bridge could also be defeated in the General Assembly. A number of bills sponsored by East Bay lawmakers are pending. Darlington said he is confident that legislation specific to Sakonnet tolling will be shot down.

“Obviously, they’re the bosses and we will comply with the law. We take it seriously,” he said. “But it’s one thing to get a bill introduced. It’s another thing to get it through committee, then through both chambers, and then have the governor sign it into law. There is no indication any of that will happen.”

A public hearing on the pending bills will be held at the State House on Thursday, April 25, at 1 p.m. Large crowds of East Bay residents are expected to be on Capitol Hill to support legislation opposing the tolls.

If a judge finds no merit in the Portsmouth lawsuit and doesn’t grant injunctive relief, and if legislation isn’t passed, Darlington said work will begin in July.

“My sense is soon we’ll be in court for a hearing on injunctive relief, but they won’t prevail,” he said. “We’re pretty comfortable that we are on solid ground for the legal process.”

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