Toll lanes in Alberta a ‘HOT’ topic

by Derek Clouthier

EDMONTON, Alta.With toll lanes expected to pop up on Ontario this coming summer, some are questioning whether Alberta should do the same to help alleviate some of the province’s shortcomings when it comes to infrastructure funding.

One of those posing this question is Benjamin Dachis, a senior policy analyst with the C.D. Howe Institute who recently released a report titled Getting More Buildings for our Bucks: Canadian Infrastructure Policy in 2016.

In the report, Dachis suggests that Alberta, which he says plans to directly spend nearly $7 billion on road and bridge infrastructure over the next five years, should follow Ontario’s lead and look at creating HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes to help reap extra revenue, a move he feels would be beneficial to the trucking industry.

“A HOT lane would be good for the trucking industry because it would enable truckers the choice of whether to use the HOT lanes or not,” Dachis said. “If they are travelling at night with little demand, then they would still be able to pay nothing for high-speed travel. If they have a strict deadline to meet during rush hours, then HOT lanes would help truckers, albeit indirectly.”

Dachis said HOT lanes are usually not available to trucks in other locations where they have already been implemented.

“But HOT lanes would improve overall traffic flow,” he said, “which means fewer cars in the general purpose lanes that truckers are using.”

In his report, Dachis indicates that gas taxes (which make up around 85% of road-related revenues), vehicle licences and other revenues from motorists have covered less than 70% of roadway expenses country-wide since 2008, and the implementation of HOT lanes could bring that number closer to the real cost of infrastructure.

There is, however, one stigma Dachis says the public must shed.

“Getting over the perception that HOT lanes are double taxation,” he said, “which is not correct.”

In his report, Dachis states, “Opponents of road pricing call HOT lanes ‘double taxation’ of drivers because both the tolls and part of government tax revenues go toward building and maintaining roads. However, HOT lane revenues – like road pricing on other roads – could bring the price that drivers pay for infrastructure they use closer to the actual cost of it.”

Dachis said he did not contact the Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) or any other provincial trucking association to get their feelings on the idea of establishing HOT lanes, and added that he has not been contacted by any since the release of his report.

Lorraine Card, executive director of the AMTA, said that they have had several discussions with the province on the government’s willingness to explore toll roads, but the move toward HOT lanes did not appear to be imminent.

“If such measures were implemented, it would be important to our industry that the government commits to directing those funds directly back into road infrastructure which would include adding rest stops and roadside pull-outs for commercial drivers,” said Card. “The industry would not support road tolls that are simply a hidden tax to build the general revenue, and would like to see the current highway infrastructure deficit addressed.”

Card added that toll roads would add to the trucking industry’s expense, which she said was already operating on low margins.

“Trucking organizations are already impacted by the declining oil and gas market and a lower Canadian dollar,” she said.

Alberta’s NDP government has downplayed the idea of establishing toll roads, despite a projected $6.1-billion shortfall in its October budget, with the Calgary Herald reporting that NDP Finance Minister Joe Ceci flat out dismissed the notion, saying, “No to road tolls, unless you know a road that I can make $6.1 billion on.”

Dachis, on the other hand, has suggested that adding a HOT lane to Calgary’s ring road, Stoney Trail, and Edmonton’s Anthony Henday Drive would be two good places to start.

“Another good option would be to have them on Deerfoot Trail in Calgary,” he added.

Dachis also attached a dollar figure in his report.

“We have not estimated the amount for the ring roads,” he said. “One estimate in this paper was that the province could collect about $40 million per year with a HOT lane on the main parts of Deerfoot Trail.”

How much it would cost to use a HOT lane normally depends on the time of day, and Dachis indicated that toll lanes are an improvement over traditional carpool lanes, which he said are often underused during rush hour.

Ontario’s coming HOT lane pilot program is expected to be permit-based, meaning drivers would pay a monthly fee to use the toll lanes and vehicles with two or more passengers could continue using the lanes for free.

With regards to the trucking industry, Dachis reiterated that it was the one that is most affected by the cost of highway congestion.

“By placing a price on road use, it stands to benefit most because (truck drivers are) the group that likely places the highest value on the roads,” he said.

“Those making unimportant trips will be priced off the road. But the main benefit of congestion pricing is better management of the existing flow of traffic, which will make everyone better off, mainly by increasing the throughput of the road.”

Dachis concluded in his report that provinces like Alberta should expand their road pricing programs, and that HOT lanes were simply a start, and that comprehensive road pricing and a cost-benefit analyses of all major infrastructure investments should be looked at as well

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