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E-toll report: take it with a pinch of salt

Unless government comes clean about its e-toll shenanigans, it's unlikely the public will buy into the concept, no matter what the format.

Read time 4min 20sec

After weeks of waiting, Gauteng motorists were finally offered a glimpse of the e-toll advisory panel's report on the socio-economic impact of e-tolling in the province.

Unfortunately, the findings and recommendations of the panel - appointed by Gauteng premier David Makhura, as a direct response to the public outcry over e-tolling - are about as underwhelming as the public's support for e-tolling has been since the system's inception at the end of 2013.

And, if you haven't been following all that closely, the public's support for e-tolling has been rather crap, to put it mildly. To put that into context, an amount of R995 million was paid by e-toll users in the first 10 months since e-tolling was established. Unfortunately, this was way short of what the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) expected to collect, as the compliance rate among e-toll users averaged about 37% during that period.

And the future looks even bleaker for Sanral, with indications that it will be about R5 billion in the red by December this year, as it is racks up debt of at least R200 million a month on the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project.

Not that things ever looked particularly rosy for Sanral during the first full year. Right at the start - in the first four months of the system going live - Sanral effectively wrote off R1.123 billion, because the overdue amount was not recognised, as the agency did not anticipate being able to collect it.

At this rate, Sanral was expected to be about R2.4 billion in debt because of the project by 3 December last year, an amount that those in the know expect to escalate to about R5 billion by the end of 2015.

No one listens

One would think the aforementioned numbers would speak for themselves. And if one listens closely, one can almost hear them telling a horrific tale of civil disobedience, rejection, refusal, rebellion and a system that simply isn't wanted. One would think.

Sadly though, the very advisory panel that was supposedly appointed as a result of this very outcry - according to Makhura - seems to have missed that part completely. Perhaps it's difficult to listen when the foot of political expectation is pushing down on the back of your neck.

Nonetheless, it was somewhat of a shocker when it emerged the panel had concluded - in one of its two primary findings - that there is general acceptance of the user pay principle and willingness to pay for current and future upgrades of roads and public transport infrastructure.

I'm not really sure whether this is indeed a fair assumption, considering it is people's unwillingness to pay - in light of the fact that they already pay hefty amounts of tax in the first place - that got Sanral and government into the current e-toll mess.

The public's support for e-tolling has been rather crap, to put it mildly.

On the other hand, it is fair to say many untruths and half-truths have been spoken in the name of e-tolls, and the advisory panel's report exposes some of those. In the same finding that dubiously claims there is general acceptance of the user pay principle, the panel also says the e-toll system is unaffordable and inequitable, and places a disproportionate burden on low and middle income households, while also being administratively too cumbersome.

Misrepresentations

Ironically, this is exactly the opposite of what Sanral has been saying all along, if you'll recall. When initially challenged about e-tolling and its effect on motorists, the agency steadfastly maintained e-tolls would hardly have any noticeable effect on the poor. Furthermore, Sanral also vociferously attacked any suggestion it might not be ready to negotiate the treacherous administrative minefield that came with variable tariffs, penalties, discounts and, of course, questionable eNatis data.

But be that as it may, I have no intention of pulling the advisory panel's report apart point by point. There are already people who are doing that. The bottom line is that while the panel did point out some very fundamental flaws within the e-tolling system - albeit gently - it is still of the opinion that e-tolls should remain in place, with just a tweak here and a change there.

Sadly, this is rather disingenuous. I suspect most South African citizens are unlikely to ever trust government again, when it comes to e-tolling. The most sensible recommendation that should have been included in the report is that e-tolls should scrapped and government needs to come clean about the blatant spin, lies and threats that it so readily employed to try and force a deeply flawed system down our throats. In the absence of this, it is unlikely any minor adjustment will make e-tolling any more palatable.

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