HARTFORD, CT — Chanting things like “Save Our State” and “No Tolls,” a crowd estimated at 2,100 showed up at the state Capitol on a sunny Saturday to protest a proposal to install tolls on four highways in Connecticut.
The rally organized by No Tolls CT got off to a late start because motor vehicle accidents on Interstates 91 and 84 prevented some lawmakers from getting there on time.
Patrick Sasser, the founder of No Tolls CT, welcomed the crowd by calling them “fellow morons.”
Sasser was referring to a phrase House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, used to describe the effort to get cities and towns to pass resolutions against the concept of tolls. Sasser said 18 cities and towns have passed resolutions against tolls since the beginning of the year.
“This isn’t something new, this isn’t something that just sprung out of nowhere. The battle of tolls has been raging for quite some time and the simple reason is, they want our money,” Sasser said.
He said the movement against tolls is loud and clear, “however there are still some in this building who are deaf. Who don’t listen to we, the people.”
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said Republicans cannot win this fight on their own.
“It is not looking good, but there’s always a chance,” Klarides said.
Klarides said they’ve offered alternatives, but Democrats are not interested because “they’re lazy and beholden to special-interest groups.”
It’s likely the General Assembly will debate a toll bill next week as it races toward its June 5 deadline. Many had been hoping the crowd on Saturday would give lawmakers pause.
Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield, who is the ranking Republican on the Transportation Committee, said there has yet to be legislation raised for debate in either the House or the Senate because of the vocal opposition they’ve created.
Devlin said during the public hearing phase they received over 7,000 pieces of testimony which “crashed the system.”
There were also 650 calls made the to Transportation Committee before the vote on the bills and only “eight of them were in favor of tolls,” Devlin said. “But I have to tell you, I’m not sure they’re really hearing you yet.”
The crowd broke out into a “No tolls” chant.
Sen. Henri Martin, R-Bristol, said the rally reminded him of 1991 when about 40,000 came to the state Capitol to protest the creation of the state income tax.
“Like the income tax, tolls will have a dramatic effect on Connecticut residents for decades to come,” Martin said.
Aresimowicz said in a phone interview that he appreciates people coming to the Capitol to express their opinion. However, 2,100 at a rally is not enough to get him to change his mind.
“Our needs are far more pressing than folks at the rally understand,” Aresimowicz said. “We need to be responsible for the state.”
At the same time, Aresimowicz said they’re not wrong about a few things. He said he agrees that pensions should not be paid through the Special Transportation Fund, but that’s the way it has been since the fund was started in the 1980s.
Colleen Flanagan Johnson, a senior adviser to Gov. Ned Lamont, said there’s no question Connecticut’s transportation system is a mess.
“We rank near dead last in the nation for the condition of our infrastructure. But the people who attended today’s rally aren’t saying no to tolls,” Flanagan Johnson said. “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.”
The Rev. Carl McCluster of Shiloh Baptist Church in Bridgeport spoke at the rally and called tolls “fools gold.”
He said tolls will hurt the middle class and the working class of Connecticut.
“It will negatively impact the livelihood of all of our citizens in town and hurt the middle and poor residents disproportionately,” McCluster said.
He said he lives in Derby and wondered aloud if anyone has ever tried to get off the highway and drive on Route 1.
He claimed Connecticut will turn into the largest parking lot in the world if tolls are enacted.