After e-Tolls, What’s Next?

The end seems nigh for e-tolls. Mpho Lukuto finds most people favour a fuel levy to replace them.

For more than five years, the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) has been trying to recoup the costs of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP) via the controversial e-tolls system. The government’s case for e-tolls included that they would deliver infrastructure sooner rather than later and ensure dedicated funding for the maintenance of roads. It also argued that the user-pays principle represented a fair way of paying for transportation facilities.

But, the project has failed because of noncompliance by motorists. The initial cost of the project was about R22-billion, but the interest accrued on the initial loans to GFIP has escalated current debt to over R40-billion. Toll revenue has fallen far short of the necessary projections, and the governing party has found itself split over voter reactions to the scheme.

In March, Sanral announced it was halting the process of pursuing e-toll debt. signalling that it is ready to throw in the towel on the project. To add to the confusion around the scheme’s future, Finance Minister, Tito Mboweni called for the organisation to reverse its decision — and at the time of writing, there’s been no clarification as to what the government’s position actually is.

IS THERE A VIABLE ALTERNATIVE?

Many onlookers argue that an increase in the fuel levy is the best replacement for e-tolls.

CEO of the Road Freight Association Gavin Kelly says that the development, building and maintenance of road infrastructure is a vexing question for South Africans, but the e-toll saga has only added to the challenge, leading to staunch resistance of any attempt by government to deal with the deteriorating condition of most of the road network.

“It would seem that two principles need to come to the fore,” Kelly says. “Firstly whatever funds are raised through a fuel/road user/transport charge need to be ring-fenced for the sole utilisation in the development and maintenance of roads, and second, the [charge] needs to be spread as broadly as possible to maximise the greatest amount possible to be collected and to minimise the impact on consumers.”

He says the government should never have created a scheme where non-payment requires a complicated system to apprehend non-payers. “This just injects huge costs into a process that should be solely designed to raise funding for road infrastructure,” he says.

South Africans need good roads, says Kelly, and he advocates for a dedicated fuel levy that is placed into a dedicated fund under the control of Sanral.

“The road network as the GFIP currently stands is already built and the funding borrowed. It needs to be repaid. A small levy on fuel many years ago into a dedicated fund would have seen the current GFIP network paid for in cash. The continued collection would have financed the further planned phases as well as other projects across the country.

“The solution is simple: cancel the current GFIP toll collection system. Allocate funds to pay off the completed first phase, and raise funds to build the following phases in cash,” he says.

With fuel prices already at record levels, however, it’s not surprising that government is dragging its heels in this regard.

The Automobile Association (AA) says it is not opposed to e-tolls, but rather its collection mechanism, which is an expensive exercise.

Sanral’s communication around the project has not been cordial, says AA spokesperson, Layton Beard, but rather aggressive in trying to convince motorists to pay for the GFIP. Beard says more focus needs to be given as to how the money is spent. He emphasises that more engagement is needed. “What we want as the AA is more meaningful dialogue to discuss the issues,” he says.

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