Conceptual layout for creating a transit-only toll lane on the Macdonald Bridge. The project would cost $12,000, and is slated for 2018.

Halifax streets could see fewer buses stuck in traffic sooner thanks to the expedited implementation of a list of Transit Priority Measures (TPMs) originally planned to stretch into 2021.

With new matching funds coming from the federal Public Transit Infrastructure Fund, eight of the 11 TPMs on Halifax’s list are “tentatively scheduled” for our next fiscal year (2017-18). Another two have already been completed, and only one — a dedicated bus toll lane on the Macdonald Bridge — is as yet unplanned. Several of those scheduled, however, are at “high risk” of not getting completed by March 2018.

Back in June, council’s transportation committee requested an information report on our current TPM process, asking staff to look into transferring funding responsibility for TPMs from Halifax Transit to Transportation and Public Works, and also to look into stepping up its planned five-year implementation of the 11 TPMs on the list. By the time the report made it back to committee at the end of January, funding under the federal PTIF had been approved, and two of the 11 measures had already been implemented.

So the expedited implementation was underway without even so much as a council motion on the matter (though it’s possible that the request for an information report represented enough council pressure).

While the city now has the money to do the current list of TPMs, there are “other factors that could impact timelines and project delivery,” says the staff report. Many of the eight measures tentatively slated for 2017-18 still need detailed design and in some cases land acquisition before they can be considered done deals, with two being considered at “high risk of not being completed” in 2017-18. The third “high risk” TPM is not yet scheduled: the proposed transit only toll lane on the Macdonald bridge.

A bridge TPM has the added factor of requiring approval by Halifax Harbour Bridges, which makes it an automatic high risk, in report-speak. “Any project where the ultimate decision is not in our hands is classified as high risk,” says David McCusker, HRM’s Strategic Transportation Planning Manager.

The idea behind the bus-only toll gate would be to keep the far right toll gate open for buses during peak hours, when traffic backs up at the other gates. It’s highly conceivable that an empty toll lane will irk drivers during peak hours, when thousands of vehicles are vying to get on the Macdonald, though the initial evaluation report on these TPMs in 2016 predicted no impact on vehicle travel times.

That first report, says McCusker, “did a fairly cursory examination of impacts. It didn’t do the detailed examination we’re doing now.” Halifax staff are currently using “a fairly precise microscopic simulation model” to figure out how to make the dedicated toll lane work. “It’s a fairly complicated area because there’s traffic crossing over depending on which of the toll booths they want to be in,” says McCusker. A bus-only toll gate won’t help busses if the path to that lane is blocked by cars headed for one of the other four gates. But McCusker thinks they have cracked the problem by testing out different lane arrangements in their model.

To help alleviate the crossover problem, the final design for this bridge TPM might involve limiting right-turns-on-red from Wyse Road onto the toll plaza, along with a shuffling of MacPass and coin toss toll gates. The ultimate goal, says McCusker, is an ambitious “zero to minimal impact” on other bridge users.

And that’s what Halifax Harbour Bridges is hoping for. “No decisions have been made one way or another,” says Halifax Harbour Bridges spokesperson Alison MacDonald. “We want to be sure a TPM provides a benefit for transit and an equal level of service for all users.”

Of course, with TPMs, some impacts to vehicle drivers are normally part of the deal, at least in the beginning before people’s travel habits adjust to more efficient transit.

While the fate of the Macdonald Bridge bus toll lane is up in the air, if Halifax can get the other eight TPMs implemented in 2017-18, the city will have made great strides in getting buses through traffic more efficiently.

The other question posed by council’s transportation committee was whether or not we should consider moving funding of TPMs from Halifax Transit over to Transportation and Public Works. The information report from staff makes no specific recommendation either way, but indicates it’s optimal to “maintain flexibility” in how we fund TPMs. This make sense. Especially in this (probably short) era of federal infrastructure initiatives, the city should be as flexible and agile as possible so as to be able to fund as many of these things as it can.

Perhaps the better question is who should be ultimately responsible for envisioning, planning, and implementing transit priority on the streets? Should it be the planners who schedule and operate the buses, or the engineers who design and build the streets? While Halifax Transit is a great source of information on where buses are getting held up (both via their drivers and their new fancy GPS system) it has not demonstrated much ambition in the TPM planning department. Then again, neither have other HRM departments, until the past two years.

Green lines: transit priority corridors identified by Halifax Transit. Purple: identified by Integrated Mobility Plan.

This all looks poised to change with the impending Integrated Mobility Plan, which includes a developing “inventory of other possible TPMs”, according the staff report. So going into the next fiscal year, the city has not only a list of TPMs to build, but also a list to consider for following years.

And that’s good news for the transit riders of the future.

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