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Congestion pricing and HOT lanes: What I learned stuck in Toronto traffic with an economist

By: Matt Elliott Metro Published on Mon Nov 02 2015

On a drizzly Monday morning a few weeks back, economist Chris Ragan and I got into a car and set off in search of Toronto traffic.

We didn’t have to look far.

Soon after we got on the Don Valley Parkway at Bloor heading north, we were quickly swallowed by congestion.

But the traffic served as a good backdrop for our conversation about what Ragan believes is the only workable approach to fixing this kind of congestion: putting a price on driving.

Ragan is the chair of the Ecofiscal Commission, a group of nerdy economists who offer politicians advice on big issues. Their latest report makes a strong case that road pricing is the only solution to congestion in Canadian cities, even with promised new government investment in transit infrastructure.

“Infrastructure is great,” Ragan explained. “But we won’t get the value that we want from infrastructure without congestion pricing. Let me put it this way: We can’t build our way out of traffic congestion.”

I didn’t need much convincing. Society recognizes that it’s necessary to put a price on things like baked goods and cellphones to manage demand, but roads have always been treated differently. I’ve never understood why.

Still, despite the evidence, I’ve become cynical that politicians will ever muster up the courage to talk about the issue.

But as we finally — finally! — made it to the top of the DVP and connected to the 404, Ragan told me he was optimistic that governments would hear Ecofiscal’s message. In part because, instead of proposing a rapid shift, the report recommends a series of data-driven pilot projects.

To demonstrate the key recommendation for Toronto, Ragan pulled the car into the 404’s High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane, immediately freeing us from the traffic snarl. For the GTA pilot, Ecofiscal suggests expanding these lanes, and making it so single-occupancy drivers can also use them — for a price — as High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes.

“Anything an HOV lane can do, a HOT lane can do better,” said Ragan, pointing to the extra capacity these lanes have to move people who pay.

Ecofiscal also suggests looking at charging drivers on routes like the Gardiner and DVP. To gauge the impact, Ragan and I took the tolled 407 highway going westbound, then moved over to the free-for-all 401. One was a pleasant drive. The other was water torture.

But the most striking moment of our morning drive came as we looped down the 427 towards the Gardiner. As we joined another pile of cars, an electronic road sign informed us to expect a travel time of 80 minutes to get back downtown.

Another 80 minutes stuck in traffic with an economist. I like Ragan, but yeah, I would have paid to skip that.

Matt Elliott lives and writes in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @GraphicMatt

This post was originally published at on 2015-11-02T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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