Metrolinx: HOT lanes should be used to break the ice for VMT charging

Among the critical revenue tools proposed by Metrolinx for Southern Ontario’s gridlock problem are two that are related to “user-pay”: High Occupancy/Toll (HOT) lanes and Vehicle Miles (or Kilometers) Traveled (VMT) charging. To-date, VMT charging on a wide area basis has not been achieved anywhere in the world, although there have been numerous local and limited approximations. Even the greatest of the handful of European examples are constrained to limited access lanes or to heavy-goods vehicles. The VMT approach, an ideal solution from the perspective of the transport economist, is often used counter-productively by some political leaders to achieve unrelated goals. It also enjoys little acceptance, and only a modicum of understanding among drivers and taxpayers. VMT charging is a tool we badly need here, but we have not yet prepared ourselves to deploy it in the time frame that funding is needed.

HOT lanes, on the other hand, have been deployed successfully in many US locations and meet with much higher acceptance. They have the effect of demonstrating that a portion of drivers are willing to pay for the time saved (i.e., to escape gridlock)—and that those users are not “Lexus drivers”—an epithet we can expect to hear, anyway.

In 2008, Mary Peters, then US Secretary of Transportation, said that: “[HOT lanes are] a stepping stone. …[they] get people acclimated to paying a fee for use of a section of roadway at a peak period of time. I believe that eventually … we will go to a vehicle miles traveled form of pricing.”

There is a useful lesson here. HOT lanes are easier in every regard. If deployed on our 400-series highways, they would have a modest congestion impact and perhaps return some revenue. But more importantly, they would start the shift in acceptance. They would prove that excess HOV capacity can be tolled, that this would relieve the non-HOT lanes, that the users and non-users alike will generally speak well of HOT lanes (after the initial week of operational hiccups as often happens on newly tolled roads!).

Even more valuable to Ontario is that High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on Ontario’s 400-series highways can be readily metered for use as HOT lanes without capital cost to the Government. This is done with wireless in-car location technology and without the use of gantries as are used on the 407 or similar RFID/DSRC installations, such as E-ZPass.

This wireless technology, developed in Toronto, uses several sensors including GPS, digital maps of the roadways that are toll-enabled and a body of algorithms to determine which lane a participating vehicle has traveled in each road segment. It can be enforced using mobile license plate recognition cameras mounted on assigned OPP vehicles (spot checking can be managed as a variable cost and can often be more effective). This technology has been developed using the “Privacy-By-Design” principles set out by the Ontario Privacy Commissioner, Ann Cavoukian, and can ensure that location data is fully private to the driver, as it is not necessary to disclose vehicle location to any party in order to ensure correct payment is being made for use of the lane(s).

What this this means is that 400-series HOT lanes can start in 2013. A pilot of several hundred or a few thousand vehicles, offered to volunteers who pay for access would allow the Government, without capital cost, to test many elements: driver acceptance, variable pricing, privacy management, license-plate enforcement, signage, etc. It would also afford ample opportunity to observe media and political response, while being able to halt or redirect the pilot without loss of capital.
Such an approach can enable Metrolinx to start gradually, to adjust, to fill in the existing HOV capacity without capital outlay on roadside infrastructure and to work out the path toward VMT charging over the ensuing years.

If the way is so safe, there is no reason not to start.


Is the Big Move really the Big Lie?

Is the Big Move really theBig Lie?” is how Tess Kalinowski, Transportation reporter for The Toronto Star, opened her 2013.02.28 article “From Oakville, big questions about the Big Move”. 

Kalinowski reports that Oakville’s Mayor Rob Burton is questioning a few things about Metrolinx’s Big Move.  On one hand he is miffed that Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford “won’t support transit taxes or tolls” and that at one particular meeting when Ford expressed his lack of support, Burton “was rendered “speechless” when nobody at the meeting challenged Toronto’s mayor”.  Of course there are several other proposals afloat to raise money for The Big Move, so being anti-tolls is not necessarily anti-Big Move.  Most politicians are anti-tolls because they believe tolls are negatively correlated with votes.  Even John Tory, now pro-tolling was anti-tolling when running against David Miller in 2003—a position for which he has since publically expressed regret.

Kalinowski also quotes Oakville’s mayor regarding the Big Move: “Before we marry this thing, I really would like somebody to prove to me that’s really the very best we can do and it costs $50 billion.” This may seem a very surprising statement—Burton has been Oakville’s mayor since 2006, and he is a smart, progressive, conscientious mayor. So must have been at least aware of the planning and promotions of the Big Move. His neighbor Mayor McCallion was on the Metrolinx board when the Big Move was planned. The Star article even states “Burton says he takes his cues from Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion.”

Kalinowski continues to quote Burton: “I’m not saying (the Big Move) is not the best we can do. I’m asking: Is this all there is? Can we really not make it better?”

Perhaps, Burton is on to something.  Assuming The Big Move was “the best we could do” when it was published in November of 2008, we are now over four years later, and still with no resolution to the funding problem. I wonder, if it were re-planned now whether it might indeed change a bit.  But more interestingly, there is now some reason to believe that the Big Move may soon be dramatically out of date.

Those who observe the progress of the autonomous vehicle—the driverless car—are saying we should expect this technology to start to impact infrastructure investment in the next decade.  While the GTHA has clearly under-invested in transportation infrastructure for nearly three decades and many, including Burton, believe that this $50 billion only means that “traffic congestion and transit won’t get any worse,” it is likely the case that with a new 'The Big Move II' (published circa 2015), $50 billion would indeed do far more for the GTHA than would the 2008 plan.

Here are a few observations:
The market needs to monitor driverless cars and these new technologies – and their associated risks – as they evolve during the next few years. “Completely ignoring this scenario is not a good option”. — Donald Light

"Metropolitan areas will start using this technology … as a forward-looking metropolitan area, as opposed to being stuck in the 20th century." — Thomas J.Bamonte

"…it is important that strategic plans of this nature recognize that spiraling advances in technology will continue to present both opportunities and challenges that will require revisiting of the plan on a regular basis.  The public consultation process brought to the attention of administration a potential “game-changing” technology that could affect not only transit but the entire transportation spectrum in the foreseeable future.  This technology is the self-driving vehicle.  Such technology is already at a significant level of development and its impact should not be underestimated.  As technologies such as this continue to evolve play a greater role in society, it will be important to recognize the opportunities they present, and to attempt to foresee the impact on future capital and operating investments - to take full advantage of the opportunities to improve the community experience for the residents of St. Albert." City of St. Albert Transit Long Term Department Plan2013-2027 (2013.02.04). 

“As autonomous and even semiautonomous technologies become more feasible, governments —and especially their planners, engineers, and lawyers —should not be idle . …. Maximizing the net benefit of autonomous driving will require researching, modeling, planning, and regulating…" —Bryant Walker Smith
Mayor Burton’s "Can we really not make it better?” is more prescient than he, or Metrolinx, or the Province, or the Star’s readers may be aware.