High Occupancy Toll Lanes in Calgary

Keating’s Friday Short Blog: High Occupancy Toll Lanes in Calgary

 You are a little late picking up your child from school. You rush out of your office and drive straight into a massive traffic jam. Sitting behind the wheel, you are angry, and you worry. It’s times like these that you wish there was something you could do. But imagine this scenario: Using today’s advanced technologies, you cross one of more than 100 sensors and cameras recording traffic flow and enter a high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane–highway lanes designated for use only by vehicles containing two or more occupants. You deposit a payment using an electric transponder. The rate you pay is fixed when you pass the first transponder and is based on the level of congestion. You choose to reduce your commute time.

I didn’t write this thought experiment because I agree with charging tolls. But I do think it does raise some interesting points. Lately, the concept of putting a price on convenience is being championed by the Manning Foundation for Democratic Education. The institute is calling for the implementation of high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on congested highways such as Deerfoot Trail, Stoney Trail, Glenmore Trail, and Crowchild Trail.

Would this work in Calgary? Many Calgarians believe that charging a toll would force them off the best roads during peak congestion hours. As I see it, this is, and will always remain, an insurmountable obstacle to charging tolls on congested highways. Furthermore, HOT lanes do not necessarily eliminate peak-hour congestion, since these lanes would only represent a limited part of a road’s total capacity. The normal lanes will still remain heavily congested. But HOT lanes do provide single occupancy vehicles (SOV) the opportunity of paying a toll and moving speedily or using the normal lanes and experiencing congestion. HOT lanes work best on roads that experience heavy congestion (that rules out Stoney Trail) and where it can add capacity to an existing lane (i.e. converting an HOV to HOT). This is difficult to do on Deerfoot Trail and Glenmore Trail since both highways are near to, or already at, capacity during peak-hour congestion times. If anything, this may cause drivers to consider using side-roads as an alternative instead of influencing a shift to carpooling.

The question becomes what can The City of Calgary do to keep up with escalating demand for infrastructure?  Should users pay a toll? One option is to build new toll roads that enhance existing infrastructure (i.e. build a road alongside a portion of highway and finance it by assessing a toll to SOV that use it).