A couple of weeks ago, Governor Gina Raimondo’s Department of Transportation announced the locations of the balance of ten toll gantries and released an Environmental Assessment [PDF] of them. They also announced that hearings to take questions and comments on the E.A. would occur in three locations on July 27 – tonight, as a matter of fact.
Yes, that’s right, RIDOT is holding public hearings on a very significant project on a summer Friday evening. Quite similar in spirit, as a matter of fact, to the scheduling and location of the hearing for the first Environmental Assessment – in that case, two days before Thanksgiving hard by a cow pasture in South County so remote, the cows themselves need GPS to get there. (Someone looking at the logistical arrangements of these two important hearings could be forgiven for arriving at the conclusion – undoubtedly completely off-base – that they are intended to suppress public turnout because the Raimondo administration doesn’t really want public input at all.)
Worse than the timing of the hearing, however, RIDOT is soliciting public input on an Environmental Assessment that is incomplete. Specifically:
> Wetlands permitting, a major component of any project/application, is lacking on three out of ten locations. To cite the precise wording (Pages 191-194), “Further application required” to obtain wetlands permitting from RI DEM for Locations 3, 12 and 13 “To be Submitted”. What if wetlands permits cannot be issued for these three gantry locations?
> None of the “Project Detail Plans” for the gantry locations are final. Every one in the E.A. is stamped “Draft”. (Starts at Page 38.) What will the final plans look like and how would the public comment on them at that point?
> RIDOT has not set toll rates for any of these ten locations.
The Ocean State Current reached out to Governor Raimondo’s office and asked if she was aware that the public was being asked to comment on an incomplete Environmental Assessment. A nice lady took a detailed message and said she would pass along the inquiry but no response was forthcoming as of this morning.
It seems pretty clear that this Environmental Assessment was rushed out unfinished. Note also that it is for ten gantry locations around the state, quite a consolidation over the first E.A. which was for only two locations in close geographic proximity. One Environmental Assessment for ten locations rather than, say, five E.A.’s in sequence means a much faster environmental approval of the balance of the gantry locations.
Issuance of an incomplete E.A.; telescoping of the approval process of the other ten gantries: RIDOT and Governor Raimondo seem to now be in a big hurry to get these toll gantries constructed and operating.
Two big questions. The first is, why are they rushing, especially in light of Governor Raimondo’s promise, on WPRI’s Dan Yorke State of Mind in January and elsewhere, to wait on the outcome – something that will not happen anytime soon – of the just-filed litigation against the RhodeWorks toll scheme before proceeding with any additional toll gantries? The second important question: is the public well served by such a rushed approval process – a process that is so rushed, the public is being invited to comment on a proposal (the E.A.) that is significantly incomplete?
[Monique has been a contributor to the Ocean State Current and Anchor Rising for over ten years, has been volunteer spokesperson for the citizens advocacy anti-toll group StopTollsRI.com for three+ years and began working for the Rhode Island Trucking Association as a staff member in September of last year.]