Freeway project unlikely to solve congestion

While the aim of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP) is to ease traffic congestion, deputy transport minister Jeremy Cronin says this may not happen at all.

Delivering his budget vote speech yesterday, transport minister Sibusiso Ndebele emphasised: “The GFIP is an initiative that aims to encourage people to use public transport, in an effort to alleviate traffic congestion on Gauteng's freeways.”

However, during the budget vote debate yesterday, Cronin pointed out several flaws in the process, one of them being that the problem of congestion will not be solved. He added that several lessons need to be learned from the GFIP.

Easing congestion and the value that would bring to the economy was one of the main points highlighted by the Department of Transport (DOT) when it initially explained the need for the GFIP and the controversial e-tolling system.

Don't forget VAT

Cronin stated yesterday that the first lesson to be learnt from the GFIP is that when politicians and the public are informed of a major project, they need to ensure its estimated cost includes VAT.

He was referring to the recent issue where the cost of operating the e-tolling system was initially pegged at R6.2 billion by the SA National Roads Agency, but later revealed to be much more once VAT was added.

“This is the second time, in my experience, that we've been told 'whoops, sorry we forgot to include VAT'. This is inexcusable.”

The second lesson, he said, is that funding models must be carefully thought through.

“Whether tolling, or a larger dedicated fuel levy, or direct financing out of the budget are the most developmental and effective means for financing major public infrastructure, is something we must clearly debate.”

However, Cronin added that it needs to be appreciated that public infrastructure is always paid for by the public in one way or another.

The third lesson he mentioned was the need to raise the question about what the public interests are when it comes to infrastructure. He asked what, for instance, is the department seeking to achieve when it expands freeway networks.

“Very often, and this was certainly the prime argument with GFIP, it is said that we need to expand our freeways because of growing congestion on the existing network. But does the ever-increasing widening and building of freeways solve congestion? International experience suggests that, very often, this is not the case.”

Cronin said more freeway lanes alleviate congestion for a few years, but simultaneously encourage more dispersed shopping malls, golf estates and townhouse property developments, so sooner rather than later congestion recurs.

Throwing stones

This is not to say SA should never build or expand a freeway network, or that it should never toll such projects. Nor does it mean that the country should never introduce congestion charging to encourage a switch to public transport, said Cronin.

“But if we use tolling to encourage public transport use, or an increased switch to rail freight, then we had better first provide affordable, accessible and safe public transport infrastructure and operations, and better rail freight.”

The deputy minister added, however, that the GFIP was not a secret project. He said that, in 2002, Gauteng newspapers continuously splashed speeches by the MEC for transport on this major toll road project that would ring the whole of Gauteng.

“So where were we? What did the enthusiasts imagine - that because we call them 'freeways' that they would come for free? One way or another, the public pays for roads. We can all throw stones at each other now, but that will not be a very helpful exercise.”

Limited funding

Ndebele also said an effective public transport system will increase the quality of life for all communities.

“Typically, an effective, safe public transport system will reduce transport costs and create job- and income-generating opportunities and increase the value of real estate. The transformation of the public transport sector is a fundamental objective that we are pursuing.”

He added that the hurdle facing SA's transport sector is one of limited funding for infrastructure development and maintenance.

Report soon

The e-tolling project is an open road, multilane toll infrastructure that allows tolls to be charged without drivers having to stop. There are no physical booths.

The toll tariffs were initially gazetted at 66c/km for standard light motor vehicles, and R3.96/km for heavy vehicles. However, large-scale public outrage resulted in the fees being suspended and consultation processes were started by the DOT.

Ndebele said yesterday that the report on the public consultations will be submitted in “due course”. “An announcement on the final outcome of this process will be made shortly, following further consultation with the stakeholders.”

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