The introduction of Canada’s first High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes represents much more than merely a way for a few well-heeled Ontario commuters to shave a few minutes off their drive times, transportation policy analysts explained in the wake of the June 23 Ministry of Transportation (MTO) announcement.
The new lanes, to be introduced along the QEW between Trafalgar Road in Oakville and Guelph Line in Burlington on Sept. 15 as part of a pilot project, will be accessible to drivers holding one of 1,000 permits to be distributed by the MTO following a random draw held in late August. The cost of a three-month, once-renewable permit will be $180. The existing High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) system will continue to operate alongside HOT, sharing the lane.
HOT lanes if properly administered are a progressive marketplace mechanism that can promote more carpooling and transit use, reduce congestion, decrease emissions and provide revenue, said Martin Collier, founder of the Ontario forum Transport Futures. The policy uses a user-pay principle to get drivers used to the idea that it costs a lot of money to build and maintain an expensive highway system.
"People will value the system more than today because it will be priced," said Collier. "That's how our economy works."
Jamie Austin, director of the HOT Lanes Pilot Branch, Policy and Planning Division at the MTO, said HOT lanes are another policy tool for the MTO alongside expanding public transit networks such as GO Regional Express Rail, which is expected to boost GO usage by 50 per cent in the next five years. The MTO will evaluate consumer demand and behaviour and test different technologies during this pilot as it works towards establishing the first permanent HOT lanes on 15.5 kilometres of Highway 427 beginning in 2021, with more planned after that, he said.
The pilot follows a trial expanded use of HOV lanes during the Pan American Games last summer.
Austin acknowledged the concerns of advocates like Collier, who praised the launch of HOT policy but called it merely "baby steps" with such a short stretch of highway being studied. Collier also suggested the use of permits, rather than more sophisticated electronic monitoring, meant a missed opportunity to get the best data possible.
"I understand there is a desire to get there quicker, with a full network, but we want to make sure that when we put the permanent program in place, with the technical solution that will be implemented and maintained, that we've got the right one that gives us good value for the investment that is being made and ensures that the bills are going to be accurate at the end of the day," said Austin.
Introducing HOT lanes tends to create greater efficiency by using up unused capacity on highways with existing HOV lanes, he said.
"So in that way it helps us maximize that highway corridor," said Austin.
The QEW was chosen for the pilot because it has the most capacity available during peak traffic hours of the three HOV lanes in the Toronto region, the MTO indicated. Drivers selected for permits will be monitored for compliance visually through a sticker system. The trial will run two to four years.
As part of the announcement, an MTO request for information called for technologies that can be used for tolling, compliance and monitoring of HOT lanes. Austin said examples of technologies that could be tested during the pilot project included telematics, currently used to track truck fleets and buses, and GPS systems that could be accessed through drivers' smartphones.
"The challenge is, many of these technologies work great at a corridor level, but the issue with HOT lanes is being able to distinguish between a certain lane that the vehicles are in, and that is where we need to ensure there is good accuracy," said Austin. "We've heard there could be a four- to six-foot margin of error in the location so that could mean the difference between picking up a vehicle that is in the HOT lane or not in the HOT lane."
Collier's group Transit Futures has called for the MTO to use a continuous network of roads, not just the short segment of the QEW, and for dynamic pricing and Global Navigation Satellite System technology for better data collection. Collier said a bolder option for changing commuter behaviour would be switching the Highway 401 express corridor to HOT lanes and for more effective policy options he looks worldwide to jurisdictions that have introduced congestion charges for driving in busy metropolitan areas.
"Congestion charge systems are seeing huge paybacks," he said, mentioning Stockholm and London. "Goteburg just started theirs. That will pay for all sorts of transit and road infrastructure that's needed."