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politics

Ontario Budget 2013: One Small Step Forward for Transit Funding

Liberal government takes a tentative first step towards new revenue for transit, with a proposal for high occupancy toll lanes.

Ontario’s still new-ish premier, Kathleen Wynne, wants us to know that she takes transit, and our lack thereof, seriously. She is willing, she’s said repeatedly, to stake the future of her government on introducing new taxes and tolls to pay for new transit lines—certainly a political risk when she leads a minority, and when her government faces accusations of mismanagement and waste on gas plants, ORNGE, and in several other portfolios.

Her government’s first budget, unveiled today, took one small step towards achieving that goal, by proposing a new series of high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes: once the system is in place, drivers who are alone in their cars will be able to pay to use high occupancy vehicle lanes (HOV) otherwise reserved for carpoolers.

The initiative is expected to raise only a fraction of the total sum we’ll need, though that’s only partially the goal. What the government is hoping to do, officials said today, is move the conversation forward—start easing Ontarians into the idea that new tools for transit are coming.

Metrolinx is the provincial agency in charge of planning transit for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). They’ve developed a long-term plan for building the next several rounds of transit in the region, called The Big Move. On May 27, they’ll release their recommended “investment strategy”—a suite of new taxes and tools to pay for all that new transit. In interviews the premier has been clear that she doesn’t want to “pre-empt” Metrolinx by committing to specific revenue tools in advance; frustratingly, she hasn’t even been willing to clarify how she’ll go about weighing their advice when it does come, and what values are most important to her in deciding among the various new taxes and levies.

Nonetheless, one of the revenue tools on Metrolinx’s short list is in this year’s draft budget: the HOT lanes are among the taxes and levies the agency may include in its final recommendations. Provincial officials today tried to clarify that the budget isn’t meant to interfere with Metrolinx’s process; they are still looking forward to seeing Metrolinx’s recommendations when they come. All they are calling for in the budget, officials say, is the beginning of a process: they will hold consultations and devise a specific plan by the end of the calendar year. That may end up coinciding with Metrolinx’s plan, should that agency also like the idea of HOT lanes, or it may provide the government with an additional option not included in Metrolinx’s recommended list of tools.


Related:

One on One: Kathleen Wynne on the Future of Transit


Estimates vary wildly about how much money HOT lanes could raise. In its recent report on the subject the City of Toronto projected it would generate $25-45 million if levied on all 400-series highways in the region. Today finance minister Charles Sousa put the revenue estimate at $250-300 million. Given that the details of the plan haven’t yet been worked out, we can take that as the government’s revenue target; it won’t be clear for a long time how they’d reach that figure, how many or which roads would have a toll, or what rate it would be charged at. No matter which figure we end up with, it’ll only be a small piece of the final equation: the cost of the new wave of transit construction is $2 billion a year.

Effectively, the HOT lanes are a way of trying to acclimatizing us—it’s the shallow end of the pool. This specific new tool will go down easier, the thinking goes, because it coincides with a substantial expansion of the number of HOV lanes in the GTHA: Sousa said today the province is more than doubling the HOV lanes in the region, and “as we do that we want to be able to offer choices to those who use them.” HOT lanes might also go over better with residents because it’s an opt-in system (since drivers can choose to use toll-free lanes) rather than a mandatory levy, and because it’s being levied on an activity that has a clear correlation with transit, in targeting drivers who are alone in their cars.

There’s some evidence to bear this theory out: when the City of Toronto commissioned a survey on the range of revenue tools under consideration, HOT lanes were one of the most popular options, with 49 per cent of residents saying it was among the tools they’d be most interested in. (This put HOT lanes in third place, after development charges and a parking levy.) Whether the NDP will agree, and sign off on a budget that includes a new revenue tool (something they have previously opposed), remains to be seen.


See also:

Ontario Budget 2013: Long-Awaited Improvements to Social Assistance

Ontario Budget 2013: Youth Edition


Comments

  • Kevin

    A good step.

    But a political mistake not to tie the change in each corridor to a specific improvement.

    Arguably, the improved off-peak service announced for the GO Lakeshore line makes a good offset for HOT lanes on the QEW/Gardiner; but where’s the offset for someone driving on the 427 or the 401 or the DVP?

    Don’t get me me wrong, as takes a car all sorts of places, I’m still a fan of tolls (provided the revenue is dedicated to transportation improvements).

    However, I think the majority of people have a healthy (bordering on excessive) level of cynicism about where the money may end up.

    Its important to tie any new revenue to clear results ideally in or near to the corridor where tolls are being charged.

    That way people see a benefit and the medicine will do down more easily.

    If HOT lanes come to the DVP, there must be a corresponding increase in service on the Richmond Hill and Stouffville GO lines the same day. (or at least I would call that sensible political cover)…..

    Just a thought.

  • Dave

    This is a pretty weak and tepid first measure. Unlike really any of the other taxes and fees being batted around this is once that does not have an existing collection mechanism in place. There are already parking meters, ways to charge HST, take a bit off people’s pay roll, etc.

    We don’t have the transponders set up on all Ontario’s 400-series highways, let alone just the HOV lanes. We don’t have the technology to say how many people are in a car as they speed along in the HOV other than cops pulling people over. That’s pretty expensive and inefficient.

    As of now this is a plan to punish people on GO Buses and who carpool by crowded their dedicated lane (and they only just got!) with people who can afford a toll to speed to work on the highway.

    Lastly HOV lanes must be considerably expanded before this even brings in enough money to start paying for transit. Right now there are only a few in the GTA, not nearly enough to make the impact people are talking about. The amount of money to do that and expand our highways is still more time, money and energy going to no transit.

  • tomwest

    Convert existign lanes to HOV/HOT lanes. Currently MTO only creates them when it is widening highways, as a token gesture.

  • SteelesAvenue

    In the face of peak oil, environmental crisis, global food shortages and unrest, we get a lane of highway for carpooling and rich people who are in a rush. one small step for man…

  • Treptower

    The simplest of measures will take forever to implement in the GTA where everybody hates everyone else and where nobody wants a single dime to be spent on any project that doesn’t directly benefit themselves.

    Face it: this is a shithole city, already 50 years behind in transit. What little that may be accomplished is 20 years away and not nearly enough – even under the most favourable of circumstances.

    But don’t let that stop you from arguing the finer points of every single bullshit scenario that is being tossed up. It’s the Toronto way to bicker endlessly over shit that will never happen.

    • dsmithhfx

      When are you moving?

  • http://twitter.com/GTAMOVEnetwork GTA MOVE Network

    I have a few concerns with the announcement of HOT lanes. First, why mention HOV lane expansion and talk about HOT lanes in the budget, 25 days before Metrolinx was supposed to decide on revenue tools to present to the government before June 1st.

    By mentioning HOT lanes the government has chosen a (shortlisted) revenue tool before getting the final list from Metrolinx … which makes me wonder if they have already decided on other revenue tools … and if they have, why not include those in the budget too?

    Second, since the HOV lane expansion and talk about HOT lanes are not part of the revenue tools announcement (and therefore, not a part of The Big Move) there appears to be no corresponding plan to improve service on GO bus (and municipal) bus services that use the 400-series highways in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area. Similarly, there is no announcement of a Smart Commute plan to enhance the carpooling experience and improve the current carpooling numbers.

    Third, one has to wonder if the HOV lane expansion is not a way to justify the widening of highways. I am especially concerned that the HOV lanes on Highway 427 (from 409 to Highway 7) will come at the expense of the proposal to build a Bus Rapid Transit running parallel to the highway.

    Finally, there appear to be no HOV lanes proposed for the urban sections of highways which have the Express-Collector system (parts of the 401, 427, DVP and Gardiner) … currently the only “Express” lanes that have HOV lanes is the 404 south between Sheppard and the 401.

    My own preference would be that the Express lanes themselves become HOV (and later HOT) Lanes … to enhance transit, encourage carpooling, and reduce congestion.

    Cheers, Moaz