Don't be fooled by toll suspension

Jack Bloom says plan will be back on the table after the local government election

Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane did some nifty footwork in the face of howls of outrage over the proposed Gauteng toll road fees. She claimed that the high toll rate was a complete surprise to her, and met with Transport Minister Sibusiso Ndebele.

The gazetted toll fees have now been suspended until June, which is conveniently after the local government elections. It's wonderful how elections concentrate politicians' minds, but we shouldn't be taken for suckers.

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has emphasised that there will be no bail-out from the national treasury. The gantries and cameras are installed on the freeways, and are going to be used to collect tolls.

The tariffs will probably be lowered somewhat, but there's a R20 billion loan that has to be paid off. It will be easy to raise the rate later once the system is up and running.

The crazy thing is that the total cost of the fancy toll collection system is reportedly R6.2 billion in the first 8 years. This is nearly a third of the cost of the entire freeway project.

It means that about 30% of the toll fees will be going just to pay for the cost of the collection system! And the consortium that's running it is 85% foreign owned.

It really looks like a giant rip-off.

I don't buy Mokonyane's claim that the provincial government was not consulted in this matter.

According to the Transport Ministry's Logan Maistry "a detailed presentation on the financial model" was presented to the Gauteng provincial government on 27 March 2009.

I am sure that in their  arrogance they thought they could get away with it. We are paying the price now for many years of utterly misplaced efforts in provincial transport policy.

The R26 billion spent on the Gautrain should rather have been spent upgrading our freeways and fixing up the shockingly bad metrorail system. There has been a long-standing anti-road bias in provincial planning.

I have long suspected that high road charges were meant to force people to use Gautrain in an effort to make it financially viable. Gauteng's Five-Year Strategic Programme 2004-2009 declared that a key challenge was to "reduce the use of motorized transport due to its negative impact on the environment and the health of our people".

According to the SA National Roads Agency, the purpose of tolling is not just to raise funds for infrastructure, "but to make the use of private transport unattractive." This argument ignores the minibus taxis that provide 65% of public transport in Gauteng.

The tragedy is that Gautrain will probably still require monstrous annual subsidies, and other public transport is woefully undeveloped. Mokonyane said in February last year that the Freeway Improvement Project would "help make Gauteng more competitive as a business destination."

It will do just the opposite as it will push up the cost of business and make the province unattractive to new investors. We suffer now from the many years of corruption and inefficiency in the Gauteng Roads and Transport Department.

Remember the hare-brained monorail scheme that top ANC politicians tried to push through? Mokonyane is reaping the whirlwind of past bad decisions. With local government elections coming up, voters should protest the tolls at the polls.

Jack Bloom is a DA member of the Gauteng provincial legislature. This article first appeared in The Citizen.

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