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Toll opponents protest Lamont's inaugural parade

Toll opponents protest Lamont’s inaugural parade

HARTFORD — More than a dozen rally-goers gathered outside the William A. O’Neill State Armory on Wednesday morning, standing in the biting wind for hours before Gov. Ned Lamont was sworn into office on the other side of the building’s stone walls.

The rally-goers came from across the state, but they had one thing in common: They all opposed the addition of tolls on Connecticut’s highways.

They stood on the corner of Capitol Avenue and Hungerford Street, just outside the Legislative Office Building, wearing red vests with “NO TOLLS” printed on the back. They carried signs with the same message, and passed around a stretched drum, taking turns making noise.

Several members stood on the edge of Capitol Avenue, waving signs that told drivers to honk if they opposed tolls, and a number of the passing trucks and cars did.

The group that organized the small rally is loosely known as NoTollsCT. Several of the members arrived in Hartford at 8:30 a.m., four hours before Lamont was sworn into office at 12:30 p.m.

One member, Cathy Hopperstad, said the rally might have garnered more in-person support if it hadn’t taken place on a weekday.

“We had a lot of support online, but a lot of people are working,” Hopperstad said. “Just assume behind us there’s 100,000 more.”

Hopperstad, a public school teacher who lives in Manchester, said she took a day off without pay in order to attend the rally.

During his campaign, Lamont said that any tolls installed on the state’s highways would apply only to tractor-trailers. However, one of Lamont’s transition panels recommended in December that the proposal be expanded to passenger cars.

If instituted, the tolls would be collected through electronic gantries, which automatically charge drivers as they pass beneath. A state study estimated that an all-vehicle toll, with an estimated 82 gantries, would raise $1 billion in annual revenue.

Patrick Sasser, of Stamford said Wednesday’s rally had two primary goals: to spread awareness of the effect of tolls and grab the attention of lawmakers, including Lamont.

Sasser said he would like to see the state abandon the proposal and instead use its transportation fund only for transportation projects.

In November, Connecticut residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of a “lock box” for the Special Transportation Fund — which is funded in part by fuel taxes, among other things. This lock box requires any money destined for the Special Transportation Fund to be used solely for transportation purposes.

If Sasser got the chance to speak with Lamont, “I would tell him, ‘Hold off on the tolls,’” Sasser said. “Secondly, I would ask him to let the lock box do its job. … I would ask him to roll up (his) sleeves, look at the books, and find other ways to cut costs in the state.”

Throughout the day, the anti-toll rally shared the sidewalk with other groups.

Members of 350 CT carried banners urging legislators to work on climate change measures and pay heed to the environment.

The Interfaith Fellowship for Universal Health Care gathered on the corner between the State Armory and the Legislative Office Building for several minutes of prayer.

The fellowship brings together leaders from the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths, among others, who all strive to bring attention to the state’s need for expanded health care.

Pastor Rodney Wade, of Waterbury’s Long Hill Bible Church, said he often sees members of his congregation struggling with the complexities of the health care system.

“They would just be stressed around the whole situation,” Wade said. “It affects not only their personal health, but their personal finances.”

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg, of Manchester’s Beth Sholom B’nai Israel, said that individuals and families struggling to find health care often come to faith leaders first.

“This is our corner of the universe,” Konigsburg said. “Whatever may happen nationally, we need to make sure that everyone in Connecticut is covered.”

Many at the toll rally also said they were agitating for the best interest of Connecticut residents.

Several said that tolls would negatively affect average people and families in Connecticut, whether the tolls were applied to all vehicles or just tractor-trailers.

Jen Ezzell, of Lisbon, said that if trucking companies were tolled, they would pass on the added cost to distribution centers and stores, which would in turn pass on the cost to Connecticut residents.

With an increased cost of goods, residents also would spend more on sales tax, Ezzell said, effectively giving the state more money without directly tolling passenger cars.

“People might think, ‘It’s just the trucks,’ Ezzell said. “No, it’s every one of us.”

Instead of tolls, Ezzell would like to see the state cut wasteful spending and use the money it already has more wisely.

“They’ve taken so much money and they’re not curbing any spending,” Ezzell said. “They need to do an audit and find out where their costs are.”

If legislators opted instead for tolls, Sasser said it would have a massive effect on commuters and on small businesses.

Sasser co-owns a small business, Sasser Excavating & Trucking LLC, with his brothers.

With taxes already high in the state, Sasser said tolls could drive out businesses or discourage them from coming here in the first place, and overwhelm families that already are struggling.

“That’s a huge burden on your household,” Sasser said. “Not everyone in our state is wealthy, and we want to live here and we want to stay here.”

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