It’s a welcome start but, like the traffic mess they’re meant to address, Ontario’s new high-occupancy toll lanes are moving too slowly.
Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca finally announced the location of the first toll route on Monday – more than two years after HOT lanes were promised in the 2013 provincial budget.
Starting next summer the new toll system will operate on the Queen Elizabeth Way between Oakville and Burlington as a pilot project lasting up to four years. This seems a needlessly long period to field-test a concept that’s already widely used in variety of other jurisdictions.
Under the pilot system, drivers without passengers who pay a fee for a special permit will be allowed to use a 16.5-kilometre stretch of existing high-occupancy vehicle lanes, between Trafalgar Rd. and Guelph Line.
These lanes, running in both directions on the QEW, will still be available free-of-charge to motorists carrying at least one passenger or driving an environmentally friendly vehicle displaying a green licence plate.
The province has yet to announce the cost of its new permits, or how many it plans to issue, although about 1,000 may eventually be available once the program is fully phased in.
Ontario’s first dedicated HOT lane equipped with sophisticated electronic tolling isn’t expected to open until 2021.That’s planned for a 15.5-kilometre section of Highway 427, running between Highway 409 and Rutherford Rd. Given the urgency of easing the gridlock that’s choking movement in the Greater Toronto Area, six years seems an awfully long time to wait. And that’s assuming the project is delivered on time.
Testing the HOT lane concept under Ontario conditions is important, to be sure. Driving habits and traffic patterns differ, especially from one country to another. Queen’s Park is right to set up HOT lanes with care and caution. But even so, this is an overly slow roll-out. Utah launched its HOT lanes with a sticker program in 2006 and successfully ramped up to an electronic tolling system by 2010.
The Liberal government’s tentative deployment of new toll lanes gives the public a chance to become familiar with the concept. There’s likely some hope that, over time, drivers will no longer consider the presence of HOT lanes a significant issue.
That may, indeed, happen. But an achingly slow roll-out also increases chances that the entire concept will be blocked and buried with a change of government. Both the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats have repeatedly expressed hostility to these lanes.
Their opposition is exceedingly ill-judged. HOT lanes aren’t some government money grab; they’re unlikely to ever be a big revenue generator. But they do promote more efficient use of existing highways.
They present people with “options and incentives to change the way they commute,” Del Duca noted on Monday. Commuters are rewarded for doubling up and sharing a ride instead of taking to the road alone. And by allowing solo motorists to also use high-occupancy lanes – for a fee — fewer cars end up jamming the regular lanes of a highway, giving other motorists a break.
Studies have repeatedly shown that toll roads are an effective way of shifting commuter behaviour in a more desirable direction. A Pembina Institute report effectively made that point this past week. Surveys show the public doesn’t particularly like toll roads, but they’re needed. And HOT lanes are a good place to start, especially if they are delivered with reasonable speed.