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.