E-tolling gets 'intelligent' support

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The controversial e-tolling system is equitable and completely fair, according to the Intelligent Transport Society of SA (ITSSA).

The body supports the SA National Roads Agency (Sanral) in rolling out the system, which works on a user-pay principle to fund the 185km of road upgrades done under the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP).

The project has been surrounded by much contention due to high tariffs, with most stakeholders calling for a complete scrapping of the project and for the funds to be taken via an increase in the fuel levy instead.

Big bang

ITSSA CEO Paul Vorster says there has been about 30 years of under-investment in road infrastructure in SA and this inevitably led to a “big bang approach” to play catch up.

“To do nothing was not the solution for Sanral and to incrementally fix the problem was not economically viable either, so they needed a big bang approach.”

He explains that Sanral can only make decisions in terms of its mandate and the fuel levy does not fall within that mandate as it is controlled by Treasury.

Treasury previously said using the fuel levy for the GFIP is not equitable because drivers that do not use the freeways will be made to pay for it.

Deputy transport minister Jeremy Cronin said Treasury is also opposed to the idea of using the fuel levy because it will lead to inefficient government spending.

Evil e-toll

“Whenever you use a service, you pay for it. With a cellphone, the more you phone, the more you pay. The user-pay principle is universally used and is essentially a fair tool,” comments Vorster.

He says it is the most equitable solution for the GFIP. Although toll is a cost, there are benefits attached to it, like the amount of time saved on the road and the cost implications of that.

“We must be rational and objective about this. Blaming the toll as the one and only evil in the world is not going to help find a solution. We all want better roads and someone, somewhere must pay for it.

“We support the user-pay principle as the best option and it's in line with international best practices.”

Competent agency

Vorster says the principle itself is above suspicion, but must be balanced with affordability. “The fees are debatable.”

However, he points out that at no stage was there any indication that Sanral was overcharging when the financial model was looked into.

“Sanral is not trying to make a profit. It's money in, money out.”

The CEO also says the recently recommended cost reduction of the toll tariffs by 20% must be acknowledged.

“Sanral is one of government's best organisations. It's an agency of competence. Their road network is of a superior quality and now they're getting flack for trying to help us get ahead.”

Road kill

Some stakeholders previously pointed out that there is still a public transport gap, which should essentially be filled before e-tolling can be considered a viable option.

Vorster agrees, saying one of the challenges in SA is that there is an imbalance in the transport network.

“We are too heavily road-dependent and don't make sufficient use of rail.” He says the focus needs to be on public transport because alleviating traffic congestion won't just come from building more freeways since this will encourage more private car usage, turning into a self-defeating mechanism. “We are not arguing against road networks but we cannot build ourselves out of congestion.”

The CEO says the strategic challenge is to have a balanced transport network.

“Hats off to the SA government in terms of what we're doing with public transport. There are significant public transport projects under way.” Vorster mentions initiatives like the Gautrain, Rea Vaya, Bus Rapid Transit system and upgrades to long-distance passenger rail systems.

The ITSSA deals with the use of technology to make transport more efficient, safe and environmentally friendly.

Stop here?

In his budget speech this month, Gauteng transport MEC Ismail Vadi said the 185km of upgraded road networks under the GFIP is only phase A1 and the project on a whole will see the upgrade of approximately 560km of provincial roads.

However, the MEC said a decision must be taken in respect of the remaining phases of the GFIP. “Should we proceed with these phases?”

He also noted these remaining phases are presumably based on the user-pay principle. “If this principle is to be reviewed, the question must be posed: How do we fund the next phases of the GFIP, given the limited fiscal resources at our disposal and the competing demands on the fiscus?”

Due to the public concerns regarding the implementation of phase A1 of GFIP, the department will initiate a proper, public consultative process in respect of any implementation of the remaining phases of the GFIP, according to Vadi.

Suspended fees

Tariffs initially gazetted for the e-toll system were suspended due to public outrage because the fees were deemed too high.

Transport minister Sibusiso Ndebele established a steering committee to consider the tariff structure, which dictated initial fees of 66c/km for light motor vehicles and R3.95 for heavy vehicles without e-tags.

The steering committee last month revealed its new proposed tariffs of 58c/km for light vehicles and R2.95 for heavy motor vehicles without e-tags.

However, the recommended reduced prices are a step in the right direction but not nearly enough of a solution to the e-tolling problem, say stakeholders.

E-tolling is an open road, multilane toll infrastructure that allows tolls to be charged without drivers having to stop. There are no physical booths. The Department of Transport previously said the minister will make a decision on the tariffs by the end of July.

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