An estimated 1,500 protestors gathered at the Capitol in May to rally against tolls.
Tolls protesters at the Capitol

An estimated 1,500 protesters swarmed the north steps and driveway of the Capitol Saturday, demanding that Gov. Ned Lamont and many Democratic legislators abandon their push to toll Connecticut’s highways.

Demonstrators particularly targeted the Democratic governor, who had pledged while campaigning last year only to toll commercial tractor-trailer trucks — then reversed himself two months into office.

“If you lie, you lie. It’s about integrity,” said Terry Greco, an online marketer from Old Lyme whose sign read: “No Tolls. Tax Slaves Unite & Fight.”

“It’s a direct contradiction of what he said,” added East Hampton accountant Daniel Smith, who takes Route 2 on his weekday commute to Manchester. And while Lamont says he doesn’t want to toll Route 2, Smith said, “I don’t trust him as it is.”

Terry Greco of Old Lyme

Rally organizers fired up the crowd by playing audio clips of Lamont from last fall as the Democratic nominee said he wouldn’t try to toll cars.

“That’s a pledge. That’s not going to happen,” Lamont said in the audio clip. At the same time, another soundtrack played Billy Joel’s 1979 hit “Honesty,” repeating the lyrics “Honesty is such a lonely word. Everyone is so untrue.”

Other protesters put tolls in the same category as major state tax hikes enacted in 2015 and 2011, arguing middle- and low-income households are at a breaking point.

Elliot Newton, a Connecticut native who lived for years in Virginia and returned to Hartford last year, carried a sign that read: “Future out of state driver.”

If tolls are enacted, he said, “it might drive me back out of here.”

Elliot Newton of Hartford attends Saturday’s rally against tolls
Elliot Newton of Hartford attends Saturday’s rally against tolls

“Tolls are this year’s fool’s gold,” said the Rev. Carl McCluster, senior pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church in Bridgeport.

One of the rally’s key speakers, McCluster called tolls “a backdoor attack on every … non-wealthy citizen” that would stop many families from enjoying simple pleasures like trips to Connecticut’s beaches or parks. “You can’t just go there,” he said. “You’ve got to pay the toll to get there.”

Connecticut struggles with some of the oldest highways, bridges and rail lines in the nation — a problem made worse by years of inadequate spending on upgrades and a budgetary Special Transportation Fund headed for insolvency by the mid-to-late 2020s.

Rev. Carl McCluster, senior pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Bridgeport, speaks at Saturday’s rally against tolls
Rev. Carl McCluster, senior pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Bridgeport, speaks at Saturday’s rally against tolls

The governor says there is no other long-term option besides tolls to fund a rebuild that must happen if Connecticut’s economy is to fully recover.

“We are at a crossroads and if we don’t fix our transportation system now, our economy will continue to lag for decades to come,” said Colleen Flanagan Johnson, the governor’s senior policy adviser.

Saturday’s rally was sponsored by No Tolls CT, a grassroots organization begun byPatrick Sasser, a 36-year-old firefighter from Stamford who also runs a small excavation business with his brothers.

The organization has collected more than 100,000 signatures opposing tolls through an online petition process and has participated in nearly 30 demonstrations and rallies statewide.

“They want our money. They want more of our money. Every single year,” Sasser said. “So last year I got into this fight because I’d had enough. … David and Goliath, we all know the story.”

Protesters at the Capitol

But despite its grassroots beginnings, the anti-tolls movement has a strong partisan politics element to it.

The Connecticut Republican Party advertised Saturday’s event with an email flier promoting the “Save our state rally” and more than a dozen GOP state lawmakers stood with organizers on the Capitol’s north steps or spoke at the podium.

“We don’t want a toll monster that’s going to pick-pocket us every six miles,” said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, who urged protesters to “be vigilant” even if the 2019 legislative session ends with no action on tolls.

Democrats “know that tolls are not the answer to this,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby. “But they are doing it because they are lazy and beholden to special interest groups.”

Klarides told rally-goers, “Don’t even bother calling or emailing” legislators. “Show up at this building.”

Republicans argue Connecticut could rebuild its transportation system without tolls by diverting hundreds of millions in annual borrowing currently used for school construction, economic development and other non-transportation initiatives.

Lamont counters that the GOP plan, dubbed “Prioritize Progress,” still would leave the budget’s transportation fund insolvent by the late 2020s. More importantly, tolls would enable Connecticut eventually to pay cash for hundreds of millions of dollars of transportation projects each year, yielding huge savings in interest costs. The Republican plan would not.

Liz and John St. Onge send a message about tolls to their state representative and senator on Saturday

“We rank near dead-last in the nation for the condition of our infrastructure,” Johnson said. “But the people who attended today’s rally aren’t saying ‘no’ to tolls. They’re saying ‘yes’ to excessive borrowing on the state’s already maxed out credit card. They’re saying ‘yes’ to saddling future generations in this state with debt we can’t afford. And they’re saying ‘yes’ to an unsustainable and reckless fiscal policy.

Liz and John St. Onge of Newington, who attended the rally, said they had a very simple message for the Democratic state legislators who represent them.

The couple carried a sign that read: “Vote No Kerry Wood and Matt Lesser.” Wood is a representative from Rocky Hill and Lesser is a senator from Middletown.

“We want them to actually know who we’re talking too,” said Liz St. Onge, adding that her vote during the next state election will hinge on two things. “Just tolls and the budget.”

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Keith M. PhaneufState Budget Reporter

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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15 Comments

  1. I was right behind a small truck that crashed down through a collapsing bridge here in Connecticut. One minute I was looking at the back of the truck, and a few seconds later, there was nothing there. The driver died. Had it been a longer bridge, I would have, also. The Republican “plan” for funding infrastructure isn’t a plan at all — it’s the usual “let’s do a study.” We don’t need a study; plenty of studies have already told us we have one of the weakest infrastructures in the U.S. Every driver in Connecticut is in the same danger that that truck driver was. If you had seen it happen, you’d be quite happy to pay a couple dollars a day not to have it happen to you.

    1. Hey here’s a plan, Judith. How ’bout they cut the budget back to the last year where their spending equals this year’s revenue. Let them cut whatever it takes – most assuredly state workers’ salaries – like ours get cut when necessary in the private sector. And how ’bout they stop stealing the gas tax money and spending it on social engineering pipe dreams. They are the rulers – we are they ruled. Get it? They want the money – all our money. Wake up to the reality within which we all live. This isn’t going to end well for the ruled……..

    2. Then why is $9 million being taken out of the Special Transportation Fund for a bike path in Glastonbury that we don’t want? You are naive if you think this money is going to bridges and highways!

    3. Then why is $9million being diverted from the Special Transportation Fund for a bike path in Glastonbury that we don’t want? Very naive to believe TOLLS money will go to bridges and road safety!

      1. Tolls money will go to keeping the govt workers’ gravy train going. Roads/bridges and their poor condition is an excuse to further plunder us. They are playing Russian roulette with the bridges. Once you realize they have their own spending agenda and don’t care a wit what we think, you too will not support a penny more tax for whatever excuse they present to us.

    4. Glad you were lucky.

      From my perspective the issue is 2-fold:

      1) Our leaders propensity to steal funds away from the purpose that we were promised with the fee or tax was enacted.
      2) The DOT Commissioner acquiescing to reduced maintenance schedules to save the $$$ that the governor or legislature demands, rather than fighting for what is truly needed. And perhaps not directing enough money into maintenance.

      Aside from design faux pas (e.g. the I-91N to I84E ramp), our infrastructure requires thorough and consistent maintenance. Most structure failures relate to 2 factors: Design flaws or failure to properly maintain.

      If the fees & taxes that were imposed specifically for transportation were used specifically for transportation, perhaps there would be no shortage of funds to do what is needed.

      As an aside – adding lanes to highways generally does not solve congestion problems – too many vehicles cause congestion problems. Most DOTs have learned that, in the long run, adding lanes just encourages more drivers to use the road.

  2. Tolls are most likely to be placed where they will capture the most traffic — near the cities on I-95, I-84, I-95, and R-15. This means that modest wage workers from the poor, under-developed, jobless cities of Bridgeport, New Haven, and Waterbury,
    who are forced to commute, will bear the brunt of the tolls.
    IT’S HIGHWAY ROBBERY!
    No matter how it’s spun, it disenfranchises the poor cities that, at election time, Lamont claimed were his priority…
    There is no real transportation plan in existence that is married to a rational redevelopment scheme for Connecticut and its cities. Any “extra” money garnered for transportation will be used to maintain the tax-base development status quo in Connecticut, which means that we, as a state, will lose further ground socially and economically, marginalizing more Connecticutians into poverty even as we concentrate more affluence in the Gold Coast and Hartford suburbs — further sharpening the income-education gap and the “boundaries” between the two Connecticuts in the context of other Third-World-like entities…
    Tolls are regressive, in any event, for a state like Connecticut. They shouldn’t even be considered until we have a rational, thoroughly-considered, comprehensive, master transportation plan for our long-term future that is married to — an integral part of — a rational, thoroughly considered, comprehensive master plan for the long-term economic/social development of the whole of Connecticut, with the focus on the cities… In the meantime, borrow to maintain transportation safety, if necessary, but No TOLLS. NO HIGHWAY ROBBERY!

  3. The democrats are just not going to listen to this. They will pass the tolls. They are confident that the majority of protesters are those who did not and will not vote for them anyway.
    They will also count on the fact that voters will pretty much forget what was another lie by a governor and that the big 3 cities will bail them out once again when election time rolls around.
    No matter what happens the unions who fully benefit with every democrat dominated session will NEVER vote against that fact.
    We will see that when fully tallied this budget will once again be one of the largest tax increases on CT taxpayers right behind Malloys cumlative increase over his 8 years…

    1. Anyone who attended the rally can see that this is a working class issue – not a Democrat or Republican issue. There were working class heroes everywhere. The white collar class was not present. Dems would be smart to realize that. Tolls are regressive and don’t know whether you are a D or R when you get dinged at the gantry. But only the working class will feel the pain the most.

      1. The point is that when democrats calculate their political postion for elections… None of that really matters. Unions… The three big cities… And the large group receiving freebies from the democrats are all that matter!!!

      2. The plan is to ring the cities with tolls. I believe it will crucify them. The only ones that benefit from the plan are the wealthy who will have the highways to themselves. The rest will be on back roads and buses. That’s the plan.

  4. The reporter let pass the assertion that CT needs to take action on transportation now, and tolls are the way to do it. For context, the article might have included the statement that no money from tolls will be available for 5 years.
    If transportation spending is to be increased in the next 5 years, then borrowing is necessary, tolls or not. The Governor has been vague on the issue, hoping for a “compromise” with Republicans which would cause them to share the blame. That obviously won’t happen, so the current issue is how much more to borrow for transportation?
    That too would have been important context.

  5. What has happened to truthfulness and maintaining personal integrity. Politicians, their spokespeople and supporters have completely abandoned the truth, in pursuit of winning. I am disheartened and disgusted in knowing individuals in the political arena can continuely misrepresent the truth, and even lie without anyone, or any rganization holding them accountable. What has become of us, when we put winning above the truth!!!

  6. What I’m having trouble with is how the state can divert money from/to the transportation fund to the general fund to the tune of hundreds of millions and then cry for more money we don’t have to keep it funded. How about an article on how much money has been diverted to/from the transportation and what protections, if any, a “lockbox” has on these shenanigans?

    This has the odor of another taxpayer plunder to feed the insatiable tax and spend beast in Hartford.

  7. The elephant in the room that no one dares speak of: Billions in liabilities to public employee benefits and retirement funds. Dems can’t talk about it because they are bought and paid for by unions. No more to know than that.

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