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Transportation Minister Stephen Del Duca said HOT lanes 'have been effective at managing congestion, by giving people options and incentives to change the way that they commute.'Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario government is tentatively dipping its toe into a form of tolling, promising a pilot project that would let people pay to drive in high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on a stretch of the Queen Elizabeth Way.

Although key details remain to be worked out – including how much it will cost to drive in these lanes and how much money the province hopes to raise – Monday's announcement offered the most information yet on the long-awaited proposal.

The pilot project, which could run as long as four years, will allow drivers without passengers to buy their way into carpool lanes on part of the QEW. The results of this test could lead to the start of permanent high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes in 2021.

As he rolled out the first details, Transportation Minister Stephen Del Duca said HOT lanes "have been effective at managing congestion, by giving people options and incentives to change the way that they commute."

The experience of other cities has showed that HOT lanes – while often criticized as an inequitable cash grab – can work at speeding up traffic.

After the installation of a 16-kilometre one in California, where the tolls range from $1.50 to $9.95 (U.S.), depending on the time of day, average speeds on the adjacent general-purpose lanes doubled. And in a finding that could help swing public opinion toward HOT lanes, research by California Polytechnic State University professor Edward Sullivan showed that drivers believed they were saving a lot of time, overestimating the amount by five to 30 minutes.

Keeping speeds above 70 kilometres per hour is an explicit goal for the 13-kilometre stretch of HOT lanes in Tel Aviv. Vehicles need four people to avoid payment and the tolls, which are adjusted as needed to keep traffic moving, can reach as high as 75 shekels ($26.25 Canadian).

Ontario's pilot project will involve converting HOV to HOT lanes next summer on a 16.5-kilometre stretch of the QEW from the Oakville to the Burlington areas. Vehicles carrying at least two people will continue to be able to use the lanes for free. But solo drivers will be able to purchase a monthly permit allowing them access to the lanes.

The use of a permit puts the province at odds with more advanced HOT lane systems elsewhere. A number of cities use the same "dynamic pricing" as Tel Aviv, charging more when congestion is worse in a bid to keep vehicles moving. By contrast, a monthly permit is a cruder instrument, allowing unlimited use in any traffic conditions for a flat fee.

The province is looking ahead to more technologically advanced future HOT lanes, though. The information gathered through the pilot project will inform a future rollout of such lanes more broadly. First on the list is a lane to be added to Highway 427 in 2021 from around Highway 409 to Rutherford Road. Tolling on this would be handled electronically, leaving open the option of dynamic pricing.

Critics were quick on Monday to denounce the government's plans for the pilot project.

"Latest plan to dig into our wallets, to pay for their failures," said Michael Harris, the Progressive Conservative transportation critic. "That road … was bought and paid for by taxpayers. A lane was hived off for HOVs and now that same road will be used for single passengers [who are] able to pay for it."

Meanwhile, Cameron MacLeod, executive director of the pro-transit advocacy group Code Red TO, said that while any progress toward raising money for transportation was positive, the government was moving far too tentatively.

"They're scared to death of ever saying that cars are not the most important part of our province," he said. "We've studied this around the world, HOT lanes are a well-known thing, and it's disappointing that the government seems to be spending their time on, you know, we have to make excuses instead of actually make progress."

Potential hurdles lie ahead for Ontario. Research into various HOT lane projects in the United States suggests that they can have a hard time covering their costs. This matters more if the goal is revenue generation instead of traffic management, though, and Mr. Del Duca's remarks did not make it clear which of these would be considered more important when setting the price.

There is also the argument that these are "Lexus lanes," an unfair way for wealthier people to buy their way out of traffic. Others counter that everyone benefits by having some traffic diverted off the rest of the highway. And Prof. Sullivan's research showed that the lanes he studied were used by drivers across the income spectrum.

"Not everybody has the same value of time, and even some people have different values of time at different times," said David Levinson, a transportation analyst and professor at the University of Minnesota. "If you're in a hurry, if you have to pick up your kid at daycare … or go to the airport, you'll pay a premium to save travel time."

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