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Ontario's Plan For Highway Lanes For The Rich Sends A Terrible Message

07/23/2015 03:21 EDT | Updated 07/23/2016 05:59 EDT

Are you like me? Did you suspect right off the bat that Ontario's "temporary" HOV lanes for the Pan Am Games would prove not to be temporary at all?

Those of us who did have been vindicated by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's confirmation this week that the province plans to bring back the HOV lanes in the future -- and to place tolls on them.

In theory I had supported a move to HOV lanes, because I believed the point was to reduce congestion by getting people to carpool. It was supposed to be a win-win for the environment and for commuting times around Greater Toronto.

But it looks like Wynne's government isn't actually planning anything of the sort. Instead, the provincial Liberals are going for a cash grab by allowing wealthier people to use highway lanes others can't afford.

Wynne said Wednesday her government intends to toll up the HOV lanes and allow cars with only one occupant to use them, so long as they pay the toll. Those of us who don't pay the toll will be limited to the remaining lanes.

Money raised from these so-called high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes will go towards the province's 10-year, $130-billion transit and infrastructure plan.

To be sure, that infrastructure investment is very much needed. Anyone who lives in the GTA can tell you commute times are growing as roads, buses, subways and trains get more crowded with every passing year. The region has already been named as having some of the worst commute times in North America.

But a highway lane for those who are willing or able to pay is not the way to address this. It sends a terrible message: Rather than rewarding those who are environmentally conscious and carpool, Ontario has chosen to reward the rich, who won't think twice about paying the toll, or those in the middle class who choose to pony up more to get to work faster. Those who live paycheque to paycheque and can't afford to spend more will be relegated to the slow lanes.

And what benefit can we expect from this policy? An HOV lane for carpoolers creates an incentive for the public to use fewer cars to get to work. A HOT lane that allows one-occupant cars to use the lane does no such thing.

This is borne out by research. A 2014 study in the journal Research in Transportation Economics found that switching from HOV lanes to HOT lanes (which can be found in California and the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., among other places) reduces carpooling and increases the number of cars on the road.

An earlier study from 2008 found switching HOV lanes to HOT lanes increases the amount of most car-emitted pollutants on the road, though by a small amount.

So whether you're a climate-conscious progressive or a low-tax conservative, there's something in this plan for you to hate.

What it comes down to, in this case, is that the provincial government has chosen to institute a new tax disguised as a "smart" traffic policy. But in doing so, Wynne's Liberals are creating a new perk for being wealthy.

And this time, you'll be reminded of it every time you drive to work.

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