On Monday the Ontario government released a first look at its strategy for implementing High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). The strategy will begin with a pilot project along the QEW in Summer 2016 between Burlington and Oakville where the existing High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane will be converted to an HOT lane. While carpoolers and buses will still be able to use the lane for free, drivers travelling without a passenger will be given the option to pay a monthly fee for a permit to use the lane. In the first phase of the pilot, approximately 1,000 permits will be sold, at a price that is yet to be determined.
As one might have expected, the announcement immediately triggered an onslaught of criticism from newspapers which criticized the lanes as yet another cash grab from the government and an unfair charge against motorists who already pay their fair share to use the road.
While there is certainly an argument to be had regarding full tolling of publicly maintain roads, these arguments are a major distraction from the purpose and intent of HOT lanes. Unlike a full-out road toll, HOT lanes involve a fee to use just one of the lanes available on the highway. Further, by charging a fee for use, demand for that lane is better matched with available lane capacity (in an un-tolled lane, usage is “free” and as a result, demand will exceed lane supply, creating congestion).
I think it’s really important to clarify what’s going on here: HOT lanes are about creating choice for travellers. Much like the GO Train was created in the 1960’s as a choice for downtown commuters who didn’t care to spend time stuck in traffic on the QEW, HOT lanes are created to give people the choice to pay a fee to bypass congestion. HOT lanes give travellers the option to exchange money for time – pay a premium and get home quicker. For many commuters this can make a world of difference – more time to spend with loved ones, running errands, or going to the gym. For other commuters, the price is simply not worth the time savings, and they may continue to use the free lanes as they please.
Essentially HOT lanes create a new option for commuters at absolutely no expense to existing commuters. Even better, by moving some commuters out of general purpose lanes and into HOT lanes, more space is created for non-paying commuters in the general purpose lanes. And let’s not forget that for commuters who can’t afford the so-called “Lexus lanes”, the lanes are free for carpoolers and bus passengers, and GO Transit’s bus service is rapidly expanding to give people more transit options. This is a true win-win scenario, and it seems appalling that anyone would object to it.