2013-09-19 / Front Page

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

By Daniel Highet

The 10-cent toll has sparked protests and emboldened scofflaws to conceal their transponders. Arson that damaged utility lines is being investigated by the State Police. (Photo by Brian Stinson) The 10-cent toll has sparked protests and emboldened scofflaws to conceal their transponders. Arson that damaged utility lines is being investigated by the State Police. (Photo by Brian Stinson) The river that is not a river but a saltwater strait bears a Native American name: Sakonnet, Haunt of the Wild Black Goose. While the nearly 40,000 motorists that cross the Sakonnet River Bridge every day may find this trivia inconsequential, no one on either side of the debate over the 10-cent toll implemented by the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority last month believes this action was either trivial or without serious consequence. Nearly everyone has a strong opinion on the subject.

When asked if he thought commuters entering Aquidneck Island via the Sakonnet Bridge would find the toll financially onerous, Peter F. Martin, a democrat who represents District 75 in Newport, stated in an interview with Newport This Week, "I find it hard to believe that $1.50 a day for people who stop at Dunkin' Donuts to buy a cup of coffee for much more than that is a burden."

Opponents rally at a House Finance Committee meeting at the State House to protest the toll. Opponents rally at a House Finance Committee meeting at the State House to protest the toll. Martin was referring to the original rate schedule set by RITBA that would charge motorists who purchased an E-ZPass transponder in the state at 75 cents per crossing. That rate was later overturned for the current 10- cent toll.

Portsmouth Town Solicitor Kevin Gavin has drafted a complaint that names as defendants the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) Director Michael Lewis, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Division Administrator Daniel Berman, and RIBTA Executive Director Buddy Croft. That complaint will be submitted to R.I. District Court when the presiding justice returns from summer vacation.

Gavin’s legal strategy is to challenge the toll based on two fundamental issues: tolling on the Sakonnet River Bridge is in violation of the "freedom from tolls" provision, and RIDOT never conducted a requisite environmental impact study.

In August 2003, FHWA recommended the bridge be replaced and decided that tolls would not be given consideration as a means to finance construction. That meant the new Sakonnet River Bridge would be designed, constructed, and open as a tollfree facility.

However, in 2012, the R.I. General Assembly passed legislation transferring the Jamestown Verrazzano and Sakonnet River bridges from RIDOT to RITBA, allowing a toll to be placed on the Sakonnet Bridge. That legislation was requested by Gov. Lincoln Chafee.

FHWA approved the Sakonnet River Bridge toll last April and RITBA set a rate schedule that would charge 75 cents per crossing — or a maximum of $1.50 a day — for anyone with a transponder purchased in the state. Motorists with out-of-state transponders would pay $3.75 per crossing, while those without any transponder would pay $3.75, plus a $1.50 video surcharge.

Nevertheless, in June, the General Assembly reversed its 2012 decision and legislators reduced the toll to 10 cents until April 1, 2014. They also established a study commission to recommend ways to finance the maintenance of all state bridges.

The complaint submits that the 2012 R.I. state budget provision authorizing the bridge transfer to RITBA contradicts the decision made 10 years ago by FHWA. That determination, legally, should have been binding.

“Ten years after the decision, the new governor reneged and disregarded the federal requirements,” stated Gavin, referring to Chafee requesting the state budget provision.

If challenging the Sakonnet River Bridge toll on this basis fails, Gavin intends to argue that when RIDOT requested funding from FWHA to prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), the study considering the positive or negative environmental effects of the proposed toll was never conducted. The SEIS, along with other factors, considers the social and economic impacts of a proposed action on local communities and is required by law.

“There is concern among a lot of local businesses and the community about employees commuting, losing customers, the diversion of traffic to the Mount Hope Bridge, and gridlock. These issues have never been thoroughly studied through a supplemental environmental study,” stated Gavin. “We think we have a pretty good case,” he said, when asked about the Town of Portsmouth’s chances in court.

One Aquidneck Island businessperson agrees with him–vociferously. John Vitkevich is a commercial real estate developer and general contractor. He also chairs the Sakonnet Bridge Toll Discussion Group of the Portsmouth Business Association, where he is a member and once served as president.

“We don’t want to tick anyone off. We want to be politically correct. But there is not a single individual among the 140-person PBA membership that is in favor of this toll,” stated Vitkevich.

Vitkevich has also become the de facto spokesperson for the populist anti-toll group. He has given numerous interviews in print and electronic media. By loudspeaker and microphone, he addressed the 200 or so protestors that gathered on the bike path next to the Sakonnet River Bridge on Aug. 18. He publicly encouraged motorists crossing the bridge to place their transponders out of reach of the toll’s radio frequency so that it would fail to deduct the tenth of a dollar from their E-ZPass account.

“We’ve been preaching financial disobedience in a civil way,” Vitkevich told Newport This Week during a phone interview on Monday, Sept. 16.

Following the arson fire at the Sakonnet River Bridge toll station that damaged underground utility lines and other equipment on Aug. 17, the evening before the planned protest, the R.I. State Police questioned Vitkevich at his home and even looked into his closets after he allowed them to search the premises.

Vitkevich said he was proud of the way the detectives comported themselves. “While my attorney wasn’t happy that I let them in, I felt they were very respectful with the way they conducted their questioning.”

Vitkevich believes the fire was a “false flag” incident designed by someone sympathetic to the goals of RITBA and in opposition to the anti-toll group, in order to deceive the general public that the crime was being carried out by his group rather than those who actually planned and executed it.

“I told the state police detectives that they should look into someone on the other side of the issue,” stated Vitkevich.

When asked about the effectiveness of Portsmouth Town Solicitor Gavin’s legal arguments Vitkevich said, “I give Mr. Gavin and the Portsmouth Town Council kudos for their fortitude in not lying down on this.”

While Vitkevich expressed his confidence in the town’s strategy, he emphasized that he was simultaneously pursuing several other lines of inquiry that would potentially eliminate the toll through alternate legal measures. He questions whether RITBA issued a general request for proposals for the toll company contract on the Sakonnet River Bridge. On this point, he has submitted public records requests to RITBA, RIDOT, and the State Division of Purchases. So far, Vitkevich says his requests have been all but stymied.

“If a state agency did not put it out for bid, the contract is null and void,” Vitkevich stated. “They would have to shut down the toll.”

If John Vitkevich can be characterized as the voice of the people against the Sakonnet River Bridge toll, Peter Martin is the elder statesman in support of it. At 72, Martin is the oldest member serving in the State House.

“As a boy, I clearly remember my first passage on the first Sakonnet River Bridge when it was brand new,” Martin said during a phone interview. Asked where he stood on the issue of the toll, he did not hesitate. “I am in favor of the toll. I believe we should pay for things as we use them,” he said.

“I am proud of my stance on this,” he added, “and proud that I stood up in the House and spoke out in favor of the toll.”

In discussing the toll, Martin was quick to point out that he had brought members of the business community to RITBA meetings in an effort to bring about compromise. Through such efforts, Martin said, he was able to secure discounted rates for small commercial vehicles that would have been particularly affected financially when passing back and forth through the toll several times a day.

“We got them the ‘soccer mom’ discount,” stated Martin, referring to the provision that vehicles would be charged only once within a 24-hour period, regardless of how many trips through the toll their day required.

Martin also was careful to note that as a representative serving District 75, his responsibility is for the welfare of the citizens and businesses of Newport. He related a conversation he had recently with one of his constituents.

“The gentleman, who I shall not name, said, ‘Perhaps the people that would balk at the cost of an EZPass are not the sort of folk that we want in our community,'" Martin stated. “His point of view was that the toll is a filter.”

Martin then pointed out that the occupants of a car traveling the approximate 44-mile round trip from Fall River to Newport would spend more on gasoline than they would on the Sakonnet River Bridge toll.

“I find it astounding that they would have a problem with paying a $1.50,” he said. “Other roadways have tolls, and they do not take you to a place as beautiful as Newport.”

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