E-toll Watch

E-toll nightmare just became even messier

E-toll storm clouds keep building
E-toll.jpg

Instead of resolving the mess surrounding Gauteng’s e-tolled road network, government’s latest plan to deal with it has just made the whole situation even messier.

The announcement by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa that the latest plan will be rolled out over the next 18 months might in part have been aimed at calming the waters until after next year’s municipal elections. It is, however, likely to have the opposite effect.

For one, the chances are good that elements of the plan might be subjected to some high-profile court actions at a time that serious campaigning for the elections gets going. The ruling African National Congress and some members of its political alliance, notably the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), are likely to be on opposing sides in such litigation.

Creating the focal point for protest actions during campaign time, the ruling party’s already vulnerable position in the cities of Johannesburg and Tshwane could be adversely affected by such litigation. It has already experienced a drop of 11% in its support in Gauteng province during last year May’s general election.

At least some part of that drop was already ascribable to the e-toll system, finally introduced under a cloud of controversy and after a first round of litigation in late 2013, only months before the election.

Especially controversial in the latest move, is the suggestion that motorists that have been boycotting the e-toll system – e-tags being registered each month plummeting from a peak of 350 000 in late 2013 to 20 000 in April 2015 – will not be able to license their vehicles.

Amendments to existing legislation would probably be needed to facilitate the implementation of this threat. Such amendments are, however, likely to be challenged as failing the test of complying with the basic principles of administrative law and for possibly conflicting with other existing legislation like the Consumer Protection Act.

As such, measures of this nature will probably also be regarded as unconstitutional and likely to be challenged in the Constitutional Court.

New political environment

Besides again exposing the ideological divides and resultant tensions inside the governing alliance – with Cosatu rejecting the “commodification of public goods” and the ‘user-pay’-principle – it ties in with a trend towards issue-driven politics in South Africa.

As has happened with the crisis surrounding electricity utility Eskom, the country is again experiencing people uniting in opposition to government actions across widely diverse political and ideological dividing lines.

In the end Ramaphosa’s announcement amounted to little more than political spin and strategising. None of the fundamental issues that have been on the table from the word go regarding the e-toll issue were addressed and not a single party, organisation or grouping has softened its position.

It is not known whether government’s review of the SANRAL e-toll system has considered the viability of following the route that the Tshwane municipality did recently in cancelling its contract with the international company supplying it with electricity ‘smart meters’.

SANRAL’s contract with the existing supplier of the e-toll technology, a consortium anchored by an Austrian company, stretches over five years until 2018, when it will be up for tender again.

At the time when the Gauteng e-toll system was launched in 2013, a senior SANRAL spokesperson said the agency believes that “after five years the system would have proved itself”.

That, clearly, has not happened and to add insult to injury, in March this year after the City of Cape Town took the matter to court, it was revealed that SANRAL has awarded a tender for the N1 and N2 Toll Highway Project, the so-called Winelands Tolling Project, to the Protea Parkways Consortium (PPC). This tolling project would see:

  • Western Cape residents and visitors to the region, with its massive tourist industry, paying toll tariffs nearly three times those presently applicable on the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP); and
  • PPC being reimbursed if the relevant minister sets lower tariffs than those envisaged in the contract or if implementation is delayed.

Against this background Brett Herron, Cape Town mayoral committee member for transport, last week warned that in light of the Ramaphosa announcement the Winelands Tolling Project poses a huge financial risk to the national treasury.

In his statement Herron said: “Due to public resistance, the national government was forced to adopt a new hybrid model for e-tolls that effectively halves the price of travel on the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP) roads. The national minister of transport has reduced the toll fees several times before already and the national treasury has had to foot the bill for the shortfall.”

As things stand, the costs of the ill-considered path on which SANRAL has embarked regarding e-tolls, are set to increase dramatically, both in financial terms for taxpayers and in political terms for the ANC in the upcoming municipal elections.

A dramatic change in direction for the basis on which road infrastructure projects and maintenance is funded, might still contain financial costs and risks.

On the political front it might already be too late to mount a really meaningful damage-control strategy, the ANC having allowed itself to be caught in a no-win situation.

by Piet Coetzer

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