- Associated Press - Friday, July 25, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Rhode Island’s bridge authority wants a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit over the Sakonnet River Bridge toll, saying it’s a non-issue since the General Assembly got rid of the toll.

But the town of Portsmouth, which filed the lawsuit last year, insists that the toll was illegal and that motorists are due a refund.

Attorneys for the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority and the state Department of Transportation say the complaint should be dismissed because collection of the 10-cent toll stopped last month and there is no longer a “live controversy.” They filed a motion last week to dismiss the complaint.

The parties went before a magistrate judge Friday on a separate motion. Magistrate Judge Patricia Sullivan suggested there are serious questions about the merits of the lawsuit. But a different judge will decide the case.

Portsmouth filed the lawsuit against the two Rhode Island agencies and the Federal Highway Administration. Portsmouth Solicitor Kevin Gavin maintains the toll was illegal from the start and wants RITBA to refund all the money collected from drivers. That’s about $800,000, according to the authority.

“Any toll on this bridge was illegal from day one,” Gavin said in court Friday. “The window of opportunity to impose a toll had closed as a matter of federal law.”

The town claims any toll on the newly constructed span connecting Tiverton and Portsmouth was prohibited under federal law once it was deemed “substantially complete.” Gavin maintains that was when the bridge opened to traffic in 2012.

State lawmakers instituted a 10-cent placeholder toll last year after they were met with strong opposition from the East Bay and Aquidneck Island to any toll at all. RITBA planned to hike the toll this year as a way to cover maintenance costs. But the toll was nixed completely in this year’s legislative session as part of a larger funding plan to address the state’s transportation infrastructure needs.

Portsmouth wants a permanent injunction banning any future tolls on the bridge. In addition to refunds for motorists, the town also wants to be reimbursed for its legal costs and expenses. The town has until Aug. 4 to respond to last week’s motion to dismiss.

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