Ontario announced an expansion of its High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on the 427 in Toronto with a similar pilot project on the QEW, the Star reports. Unlike the  electronic tolling system on the 427, the QEW pilot will be a low-tech sale of 1,000 permits at $180 each for drivers of single-occupant vehicles to use the existing HOV lanes whenever they choose. More information is linked here.

How this will be enforced is not immediately clear. Will cameras pick up single-occupant vehicles in the HOV lanes, check those plates against the list of registered permits, and forego a ticket where there’s a match? Will drivers risk being pulled over by OPP and let off after showing their permits? Or will it be the honour system?

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The current, more informal HOT scheme

There is no shortage of critics of this pilot project. One predictable dissenter is Conservative MPP Michael Harris who claims the inclusion of these single occupant vehicles will reduce the quality of the HOV lanes to the point of rendering them useless and thus counter to their whole purpose. It is therefore nothing but a money grab.

He’s wrong about the numbers (1,000 vehicles, even if all travelling at the same time, will have virtually zero impact on the HOV lane’s operations or speed), but not wrong that it’s a ham-fisted approach that will likely not provide any measurable improvement to either the ‘normal’ or HOV/HOT lanes.

A dynamic pricing model would work better by posting capacity-based prices on the use of the HOV lanes for single-occupant drivers. It would make a lot more money and be more responsive to the balanced needs of revenue and car poolers.

Alternatively, the province could just tell single-occupant drivers to buck up. If their time was so much more precious than everyone else’s they could use the HOV lane as part of a legitimate carpool. But that’s never going to happen. At present, the QEW pilot program is: 1) a small money making scheme, and 2) an experiment to see how many more permits can be incrementally sold before the HOV lanes actually do start to fail.

Closer to home, HOT lanes are not high on the current provincial government’s list for revenue generation – unless/until it’s discovered that yet more money is needed for the Massey Bridge. However, should the NDP take over next year (this is a theoretical question), would they be amenable to HOT lanes as part of a transit funding package?  What do you think?