HOT lanes should be just the beginning

Converting carpool lanes across the GTA to dynamic toll lanes will benefit all commuters.

Converting high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes to toll lanes would benefit all commuters stuck in the GTA’s stifling traffic jams and transit delays, not just the wealthy, as some critics contend.

The province is reportedly considering a proposal to convert the much-maligned HOV lanes across the GTA into what are known as high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, which would allow a car with just one occupant to pay a toll to use a lane that was previously reserved for cars carrying multiple passengers. The province should go one step further and consider a toll that fluctuates with traffic congestion.

Cities that have introduced HOT lanes where the price of the toll increases with congestion – known as dynamic toll lanes – show that they are less regressive than using sales or gas taxes to pay for highways, lead to an increase in public transit customers, are popular with commuters and improve travel times for all commuters, even those in the free lanes.

Researchers in California found that a highway in car-heavy Orange County that introduced dynamic toll lanes to finance it, rather than a proposed sales or gas tax, actually saved low-income residents money and shifted the cost of the highway onto its heaviest users.  The researchers found that if the $34 million in revenue from the tolls was instead raised through sales taxes, the lowest income group – who paid very little in tolls – would pay $3 million for a highway system they used far less, if at all, than their middle and high income counterparts.

Ultimately, the study found that sales and gas taxes – where everybody, regardless of whether they use it or not – are on the hook for the cost of a highway is “pro-auto/pro-driving” policy that benefits middle and high income households more than their low income counterparts.

Public transit customers would also benefit from toll lanes. In Miami, where the city introduced a number of toll lanes that charge drivers a fee during peak travel periods and that promise to keep the lanes congestion-free, public transit dramatically increased, as new express buses could use the fast-moving lanes without having to pay a toll. Previously, the lanes were for carpoolers, but they were nearly as congested as the general lanes.

Ridership on a major bus route using the new lanes surged. According to data from the region’s transit agency, average daily ridership on that bus route increased 57% after the toll lanes were introduced. A spokesperson from the transit agency called these new riders, “choice riders” who have access to vehicles, but are choosing public transit.

Many commuters like the idea of having the option of paying a fee to avoid sitting in traffic. They may not use it everyday, but they recognize that at times, it would be worth it. A large study done by a transportation board in Washington D.C. reported 60% of those surveyed said they would be open to a plan to introduce one priced lane on all of the capital city’s congested highways. The more they learned about the tolls lanes, the more welcoming they became.

Many respondents said they would appreciate the predictability of paying to avoid sitting in traffic and were willing to pay a little extra to get to work on time when they are running late. Others said it would make it easier to determine the true cost of commuting.

Even those drivers who opt to stay in the free lanes benefit from tolls. After HOT lanes were introduced in Seattle, travel speeds on the adjacent free lanes increased by as much as 19 percent. In Minneapolis, the number of cars passing through a stretch of highway increased by 9 to 13 percent on the HOT lanes and 5 percent in the adjacent free lanes.

And finally, while some critics refer to HOT lanes as “Lexus Lanes”, researchers in Atlanta found that the four most popular cars in both the tolled and free lanes were the same make – and none were a Lexus, but rather a Honda Civic, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Ford F-150.

HOT lanes give everyone the opportunity to reach their destination on time – not just the rich – and make transit a more attractive option, at no extra cost to customers. They also lead to a more efficient use of our highways, as those commuters with a flexible schedule will move to off-peak hours. The current policy of keeping the roads free and “fair” to all drivers is the main reason for crippling congestion.

Brady Yauch is an economist and Executive Director of the Consumer Policy Institute (CPI). You can reach Brady by email at: bradyyauch (at) consumerpolicyinstitute.org or by phone at (416) 964-9223 ext 236

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