AS of the date of writing, the tariffs gazetted for Gauteng’s hated highway toll system have been suspended. This follows weeks of extraordinary public outrage, prompting a rare display of unity across the political and economic spectrum.
Everyone, from working-class drivers to middle-class mums to rich yuppies, had something to say. Undoubtedly some of it was complimentary, but Google failed to turn up any actual examples. Even the premier of Gauteng, Nomvula Mokonyane, tried to get on the right side of public opinion and challenged the transport minister, Sibusiso Ndebele, over the controversy.
Almost every step of the way, the South African National Roads Agency Ltd (SANRAL) botched the process to gain public acceptance for a toll system to pay for the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP). The principle of tolls to implement a “user pays” system for funding infrastructure makes sense. In the private sector, this principle is nearly universal. (Which raises the question of why roads can’t be private, but that deserves a column on its own.)
People who have no need for those smooth, wide roads ought not to have to pay for them. If you walk, cycle or share a car, you should pay less than the lone sales rep who whizzes between Johannesburg and Pretoria several times a day. It stands to reason. So why the outrage?
For a start, this deal stinks of multiple taxation. Road users believe they pay for roads via fuel levies and vehicle licence fees. “It’s not as if the highways didn’t exist before this year,” they’d argue. Therefore, a new layer of tax to pay for roads people took for granted, and consider a primary responsibility of government, is a bitter pill to swallow. It also raises the question of whether the other revenue streams for road maintenance are still justifiable, and if so, why multiple methods of revenue collection are better than one, simple, fair and efficient system.
The fuel levy would seem an ideal and simple means to raise revenue, and it is scaled directly to actual road usage. For a province whose biggest city does not have a particularly proud record with billing and debt collection, a means of generating revenue that avoids this is a no-brainer. By contrast, the system set up for tolling Gauteng’s freeways is breathtakingly sophisticated. Such toys look very shiny when you take them out of the box, but they have a nasty habit of breaking very badly, very quickly.
Then there’s the consultation issue. If you’re going to foist years of roadworks, delays and inconvenience on the public, and then present them with a fait accompli and a R20-billion bill, they’re going to be upset. This is not rocket science. Try painting the roof of your house and sending the bill to your landlord without having asked first.
In the early days of the United States, there was a principle that the government had to get explicit consent from the people if it wanted to levy tax to fund a particular project. The navy would languish without ships for years, for example, when citizens didn’t feel particularly threatened. For a project such as this, the Gauteng Provincial Government and SANRAL should have asked Gauteng’s road users: do you want us to fix the highways, on condition that we charge you 66 cents per km?
One can’t help but be suspicious about the timing of these tolls, coinciding as it does with the launch of the Gautrain rapid rail system. Sure, it is claimed that the tolls pay for road upgrades, but it sounds like abuse of the power of taxation to convince people to leave cars and taxis for trains and buses they wouldn’t otherwise prefer.
Not only the tolls, but their high price, came as a suprise. To put it in perspective, a typical medium-sized truck will pay roughly as much for toll fees as it now pays for fuel. When the unions warn about the impact on food prices and employment, it isn’t wrong. Local residents will also be heavily affected even if they don’t use the toll roads. Many drivers simply can’t afford to pay hundreds of rands a month extra. They’ll be clogging up the suburban byways instead. The extra load on those roads means everyone else gets to pay for the unintended side-effects of the GFIP after all.
It is unlikely that Gauteng can backtrack on tolling. There’s debt to be paid and cost that’s been sunk. Chalk another one up for grandiosely conceived but poorly considered public works. It would be nice to think that lessons were learnt, but that’s another thing governments are not very good at.