A federal court in Rhode Island denied a request late Wednesday afternoon for a temporary restraining order against tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge, one day after a third community joined in a lawsuit seeking to stop the state from implementing them.
Judge Ronald Lagueux of the U.S. District Court in Providence ordered the parties back into court next Wednesday to begin arguments in Portsmouth's lawsuit, which it filed last week. Tiverton, which voted Tuesday night to support the lawsuit, and Bristol are supporting plaintiffs. The three communities say the tariff would unfairly burden nearby residents and businesses.
Portsmouth said it would “suffer irreparable harm” should tolling proceed.
The bridge carries state routes 24 and 138 across the river from Tiverton to Portsmouth connecting mainland Rhode Island with Aquidneck Island. State officials say toll money is necessary to maintain the new span, which opened last September at a cost of $164 million.
The defendants are the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.
“It’s very, very worthwhile to get Tiverton on board,” said Rep. John Edwards, D-Portsmouth, who co-sponsored a bill in the Rhode Island legislature to ban the tolls.
The bridge authority plans to implement open-road electronic tolling on the span on July 1, calling the move necessary to pay for upkeep. The authority last week installed gantries for the sensors that will connect tolls from motorists.
Executive director Buddy Croft said in a court filing that toll revenue would bring in between $2 million and $2.5 million in July and August. Aquidneck Island, in Narragansett Bay, is a tourist destination whose southern end includes Newport.
“I think the bridge authority is being extremely presumptuous by putting the gantries up so early,” said Edwards. “They could have waited for the General Assembly to finish its session.”
But chairman David Darlington said the authority is on solid legal footing.
“We’re doing what’s under the law,” he said, citing legislation that Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed last year that authorized the transportation department to transfer operations of the Sakonnet and Jamestown Verrazano bridges to the authority and authorized it to impose tolls on the Sakonnet.
The law also enables the bridge authority to divert Sakonnet toll money for maintenance to the Claiborne Pell Newport, Mount Hope and Jamestown Verrazano bridges, all of which connect to Aquidneck Island.
Edwards admits his bill, co-filed with Sen. Walter Felag, D-Warren, is still a longshot. “It’s a bit of an uphill battle. I’d say our odds are at about 45% to 55%,” said Edwards.
“A year ago I’d have said our odds were one in 10,” he said. “We’re still fighting. The fat rep hasn’t sung yet.”
His bill would pay for Sakonnet maintenance by diverting a $10 million municipal aid fund Chafee had proposed in the budget for cities and towns with unfunded pension liability problems.
The Sakonnet toll, should it pass the legal challenge, would be 75 cents per trip for Rhode Islanders with E-ZPass, with multiple trips on the same day free of charge. Non-residents with E-ZPass – the bridge lies just south of Fall River, Mass. – will pay $3.75 per crossing. Motorists without transponders will pay $5.25.
The former bridge, which operated from 1956 until 2012, was toll-free. The state has scheduled it for demolition. Trucks, banned from the old span because of its wear, are allowed on the new one.