The Ontario government will more than double the distance of high-occupancy lanes on highways in the Toronto area, an increase that will give the province many more options as it brings in tolls on these types of lanes.
The announcement was part of a budget that listed billions in transportation spending, though only a few initiatives were new and these typically did not have dollar figures attached.
“We will continue to invest in public transit,” Finance Minister Charles Sousa told reporters. “For Ontario to be competitive in the future, we can’t stop investing in infrastructure.”
Among the new plans was a commitment to increase the number of passengers GO Transit can carry over the next decade.
GO Transit’s daily capacity will rise by 50,000 people, an increase of nearly 20 per cent, according to the budget.
The service also will install 16,000 new parking spaces, a 25-per-cent rise. Investments in new stations, vehicles, maintenance facilities and corridor improvements were pledged as well.
These plans – along with improvements to a small handful of highways, most of them outside the Toronto area – were not costed and full details are yet to be rolled out.
Details also were scant on the high-occupancy toll lanes, a variant on regular high-occupancy lanes in which drivers without the minimum number of passengers can pay for access.
That plan was criticized by NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, whose party’s support will be necessary to get the budget passed.
“What it does is discourage people from carpooling and creates Lexus lanes in the province of Ontario,” she said. “That’s not a step in the right direction.”
Mr. Sousa projected the annual revenue from these lanes at up to $300-million.
While specifics about pricing and locations remain to be worked out, the budget promised that all such roads would have toll-free lane options as well.
Toronto’s TTC chair Karen Stintz said the budget underlines the need for councillors to put new funding sources for transit expansion on the agenda of next week’s council meeting.
“There is no more money coming from the province for transit unless we agree that we are going to raise it” through fees, taxes and tolls, she said.
The government pledged in this budget to pursue high-occupancy toll lanes, consult with stakeholders and bring forward a plan “by year-end.”
The government also announced its intention to expand dramatically the number of high-occupancy vehicle lanes, putting them on stretches of highways 401, 404, 410 and 427.
Although the exact locations remain to be determined, Mr. Sousa said this increase would more than double the distance of these types of lanes.
It will not become clear until later this year whether these new lanes will be tolled.
Brampton Mayor Susan Fennell says she does not support charging people a toll to let them drive in carpool lanes.
Ms. Fennell is particularly concerned about the 410, which she says is “solid gridlocked.”
“The people of Brampton are going to be absolutely stunned,” she says of the idea, “It’s not right.”
In Markham, Mayor Frank Scarpitti was more optimistic.
“I think it’s a positive start for new funding and revenue for the massive transit investment that has to happen across the GTA,” Mr. Scarpitti said.
“There’s still a report coming from Metrolinx that speaks to much broader menu and other initiatives any provincial government will have to undertake.”
The government is waiting for the regional transit agency Metrolinx to come forward with its recommendations for how to fund the next generation of transit expansion, 10 projects estimated at $34-billion.
The Metrolinx report is due by the end of the month.
The government is expected to take time to decide whether to implement the recommended revenue tools and money is unlikely to be earmarked before the 2014 budget.
One of the options on Metrolinx’s shortlist is high-occupancy toll lanes.
The budget comes amid growing concern about road congestion in Southern Ontario.
The Toronto Region Board of Trade has pegged the cost of excessive traffic at $6-billion annually and has joined a chorus of groups advocating for new funding for transit.
With reports from Elizabeth Church and May Warren