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.”
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.”
“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.
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.”
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.
“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.”