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Is Ontario’s road pricing plan HOT? It’s not

Here’s the good news: Ontario’s ministry of transportation is sending out permits for new high occupancy toll lanes (HOT lanes) on the QEW.

Starting Sept. 15, the permits will allow drivers travelling alone to pay to use lanes previously reserved for vehicles with passengers.

It’s a first step toward putting a price on road and highway use – something many economists have long been advocating as a means of reducing congestion and growing transit ridership.

I’ll applaud that.

But here’s the bad news: with their HOT lane plan, the provincial government is approaching road pricing with all the timidity of an awkward middle school student asking a classmate to the homecoming dance.

Let’s start with the price. Drivers are being dinged just $60 a month for the right to use these lanes.

That’s less than half the price a TTC user pays for a monthly Metropass, and less than what most GO Transit riders spend on fares in a single week.

The low price is made worse because it’s an artificial constraint. According to a report by the Globe & Mail, internal government projections suggested there would still be strong demand for permits priced as high as $150 per month.

So why $60? Why forego potential revenue that could offset some of the subsidy that goes toward roads and drivers in the GTA?

Answers are elusive. But the cost is just one of many arbitrary limitations stuck on this project.

The ministry also limited the number of permits so that just 1,000 drivers will get them. Instead of managing demand by increasing the price – like, you know, capitalism – the recipients were determined through a lottery.

And even though there are 85 kilometres of HOV lanes in the GTA – and a bunch of other highways that could easily be partially or wholly tolled — the HOT permits will apply to just one 16.5 kilometre stretch on the QEW.

Here’s the kicker: Instead of embracing road pricing as the new reality in a region with ever-worsening traffic congestion and huge pending public transit costs, the government is calling this a pilot project. They plan to spend between two and four years evaluating the results of these HOT lanes.

I can’t imagine what they think they will uncover. I can’t imagine why they need so much time. And I especially can’t imagine why they think the GTA needs such specialized consideration when toll roads are used all over the world.

But here we are. Years of reports and expert recommendations on strategies to pay for transit and manage road congestion have led the GTA to this: a tiny, almost imperceptible step toward limited road pricing.

We’re moving, but at a speed so slow I’m not convinced we’ll ever get anywhere.

This post was originally published at on 2016-09-05T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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