E-toll Watch – opinion

Time for the e-toll debate to become real

E-toll infrastructure to become white elephant?
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The heated, often emotional, debate about e-tolling of 185 kilometres of freeway in Gauteng has been raging for the best part of three years now. Finally last weekend, from a surprising source, some balanced good sense was injected. (Read more)

Over time the core issues of who should pay for the upgrades to roads in a particular area or province (those who use the roads, or everybody in the country?) mostly got lost in the way the debate developed.

With a resolution adopted on the matter at its provincial conference last weekend, the ANC of Gauteng not only brought some balance back into the debate, but might also have laid some groundwork for the final resolution of a matter that has been dragging on for too long.

The ANC might also prove to have considerably improved its prospects for the up-coming local government elections of 2016. It is probably safe to say that the present e-tolling system will not survive for much longer.

Contrary to how most commentators and lobbyists/campaigners against e-tolling, or even any tolling at all, have chosen to interpret the resolution, the ANC of Gauteng did not pitch itself on principle against the government or the leader of the ANC, President Jacob Zuma.

Apart from the fact that Mr Zuma has since welcomed the resolution, it also emerged that the Gauteng leadership consulted with him beforehand. It would seem that they have come close to turning the nagging e-toll saga into a positive for the 2016 election.

The resolution

In its resolution the ANC of Gauteng states: "The conference accepts the user-pay principle (our emphasis) but Gauteng's economy benefits the whole country. The current system is too expensive. Traffic flow is negatively affected by urban tolling. We would rather have a fuel levy, administered by SARS."

Gauteng ANC chairman and former Arts and Culture minister, Paul Mashatile, also said the provincial executive committee would “work with the ANC leadership to ensure that the ANC speaks with one voice”. Transport Minister Dipuo Peters also said the government would not scrap or review the user-pay system as funding mechanism for urban roads.

The Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (OUTA), via its chairman Wayne Duvenhage, chose to interpret minister Peters’ statement as saying that e-tolling per se will be retained. He, rather arrogantly, also declared that the decision about whether to keep e-tolls is no longer one for Transport Minister Dipuo Peters or Sanral CEO Nazir Alli to make.

It is Mr Duvenhage’s democratic right to lobby and campaign against something he or his organisation does not agree with. But in democracies it is the responsibility of an elected government to make the final decisions.

On another occasion he also tried to make the case that Gauteng’s roads should be toll-free, considering “... how much money the Treasury gets from Gauteng”. The question, however, is why should Gauteng roads be different from tolled roads in other provinces?

User-pay the crux

The ‘user-pay’ principle is, and should be treated, as the crux of the matter.

The solution put forward by OUTA and others campaigners against e-tolling is that the route to follow is a fuel levy – and presumably an increase in the existing levy – to fund the construction, upgrade and maintenance of all roads.

E-tolling clearly does not seem to be the most cost-effective way to implement the user-pay principle regarding the construction and upkeep of roads. The fuel levy already in existence does seem to present itself as a logical alternative.

However, it would hardly be fair for every road user in the country to pay more to help foot the bill for new roads already built and/or upgraded in Gauteng, while existing toll arrangements in other provinces remain in place.

If arrangements are to remain fair towards all road users across the country, one of two things needs to happen: either all tolls have to be scrapped or targeted road levies for specific regions should be introduced.

I’m sure it is not as straightforward as all that. One issue is the massive wasted expenditure on existing e-toll infrastructure. But these are issues that have to be discussed ASAP.

Procrastination over the issue can hardly be afforded. For one, the latest TomTom South African Traffic Index indicates that Johannesburg is already again the most congested city in South Africa and the 20th most congested in the world.

Hopefully all interested parties will use the opportunity created by the Gauteng provincial government in setting up an e-toll panel, and bring constructive suggestions rather than resort to mere posturing. The time has come to move on and become real in the debate.

by Piet Coetzer

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