Amid an otherwise unsexy Ontario budget released on Thursday was an interesting concept that could actually lead to concrete improvements to two of the province’s major problems – transit funding and traffic congestion.
The $127.6-billion spending plan announced by Finance Minister Charles Sousa had all the regular bells and whistles, money for job growth, investments in infrastructure and more than a few treats aimed at winning support from the NDP.
And among all that stood a plan to change some of the province’s high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes into toll routes. Actual toll routes. Where a driver pays to access the additional lane and gets to their destination faster, while suffering less congestion. Where do I sign up?
The strategy hasn’t been spelled out in detail yet, but essentially it would let single-occupancy vehicles drive in HOV lanes by paying a toll. It is believed that such lanes could fit on many of the high-volume highways through southern Ontario.
The budget also announced new high-occupancy lanes on key Toronto-area roads such as Highways 401, 404 and 410, although it wasn’t clear if those were intended to be tolled lanes.
Sousa suggested the annual revenue from the toll lanes could be as high as $300 million. It would be a win-win if that money was directed toward improving transit infrastructure all over the province.
A similar suggestion was made by Metrolinx, the province’s transit agency, to help pay for its current transit expansion plan.
The plan has to be fleshed out before anyone should get too excited, but considering the Toronto Region Board of Trade says congestion costs the province $6 billion annually, anything that addresses that while churning a profit should be considered.
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Bern Grush, a transit economist, told the Toronto Star on Thursday that the high-occupancy toll lanes are like “training pants for road users,” and would help people consider how more concrete road tolls would affect driving habits.
The plan was attacked by NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who said the change to high-occupancy vehicle lanes would have a negative impact on carpooling.
“What it does is discourage people from car-pooling and creates Lexus lanes in the province of Ontario,” she told the Globe and Mail. “That’s not a step in the right direction.”
Horwath means that it is a toll route that benefits just those with the means to use it. Yeah, that's the best part. It would be entirely voluntary. Don’t want to pay the toll? Stay in the regular lanes. Who could argue with that?