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Jan 17, 2003

To toll or not to toll: Gauteng mulls user-pays road option

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© Reuse this Although blessed with an extensive road infrastructure, South Africa’s provincial road network is believed to have deteriorated significantly over the past decade where, currently, fewer than 40% of Gauteng roads are classified as being in a good or very good condition.

By comparison, more than 80% of these roads were deemed to be in a very good condition in 1985.

Moreover, various studies have shown that the existing capacities of several major roads – most notably the N1 Ben Schoeman Highway linking Johannesburg and Pretoria – have already been exceeded.

It is believed that an average of 155 000 vehicles make use of this particular highway a day, while the total traffic volume for the Johannesburg-to-Pretoria corridor is calculated at 300 000 vehicles a day, with an occupancy rate of 1,2 people per car.

The overall effect of this is severe traffic congestion, something that frustrated motorists have to deal with on a daily basis.

Even more alarming is the fact that traffic volumes keep increasing at a rate of between 4% and 7% a year, indicating that traffic congestion is set to worsen each year.

In a bid to reduce the urban congestion, and consequently travel time for commuters, the Gauteng Superhighways Consortium (GSC) submitted an unsolicited proposal to the South African National Roads Agency (Sanra) in March 2000 to design, construct, finance, operate and maintain toll-roads along the Johannesburg-to-Pretoria corridor.

The roads agency accepted the proposal and awarded the consortium, consisting of civil contracting company Grinaker LTA, consulting engineering company Stewart Scott, civil contractor and inter-national toll operator GrupoDragados and internationaltraffic-management consultant DHV, scheme developer status inNovember of that same year.

Sanra and GSC are jointly responsible for the financing of all the relevant studies to determine the feasibility of the proposed project.

Independent environmental consultant Arcus Gibb has been appointed to conduct the environmental-impact assessment (EIA) study and, at the time of goingto press, the initial scoping report would have been submittedto the GautengDepartment of En-vironmental Affairs and Tourism for review.

Grinaker LTA Concession & Special Projects MD Eugene Erasmus tells Engineering News that the consortium is at a point where it believes the proposed project to be both technically and financially viable.

“With only the results of the full EIA still outstanding, we are hopeful of making a final presentation to Sanra by March, after which the preparation of tenders could begin,” Erasmus says.

It is envisaged that the successful bidder could start with construction in 2005, with the initial phase likely to be completed by 2008.

Based on a US concept, the Superhighways project proposes to add additional capacity to the Johannesburg-to-Pretoria corridor by introducing a toll expressway system.

This concept entails the provision of additional lanes and the physical separation of tolled and untolled traffic on the existing N1 (BenSchoeman), N1 (Eastern bypass), N1 (Western bypass), N3 and R24 and the R21 (airport) highways.

The proposed Superhighways project would be completed over a 30-year period and would be divided into two distinct phases – an initial construction phase (year one to four) and an expansion phase (years five to 30).

The initial phase includes developing two extra lanes on the N1, N3, R24 and R21, as well as the construction of toll ‘tunnels’ on these roads, while the expansion phase involves the construction of a number of new roads (PWV 5, 9, 13 and 14) and the upgrading of existing ones.

Stewart Scott chairperson Rufus Maruma explains that, on the existing Ben Schoeman highway, for example, two lanes in each direction will be added, leaving the two lanes in the middle, which are to be tolled, to be separated from the outside lanes by a so-called surface barrier.

“The beauty of this project is the fact that motorists will ultimately have a choice whether they want to make use of the tolled or untolled roads,” he says.

According to Maruma, the possibility of people ignoring the tolled section and rather opting for the untolled lanes, thereby creating even more congestion, is slim.

In total, the consortium is proposing that about 170 km of roads be tolled.

Since the project is still in an early development phase, there is no final decision on where the proposed toll-plazas will be located or where the exact access and exit points to and from the toll section will be. However, current proposals make provision for one mainline plaza along each of the five tolled sections.

Maruma points out that the tolled lanes would essentially be a long-haul transportation system, meaning that not all the existing off-ramps would be accessible in order to avoid creating congestion.

“However, to prevent confusion, clear signage will be present at all toll-plazas, indicating which off-ramps will be accessible,” he notes.

As far as the toll fees are concerned, initial amounts of between R8 and R25 have been quoted.

“Depending on the time of day, motorists will be charged different fees – a first in South Africa,” Erasmus says.

The R4-billion project will be operated by the winning consortium for a 30-year concession period, after which it will be handed back to Sanra. The concessionaire will ultimately be responsible for the financing, construction, operation, maintenance and future upgrading of the roads.

As scheme developer, the GSC is very keen to procure the contract.

Although some might argue that the consortium has an unfair advantage over competitors, Erasmus maintains that under Sanra’sapproved unsolicited bid process, the only advantage it will have is that, once the tender process starts, GSC will be entitled to submit a best and final offer.

“At the end of the day, the adjudication process is in the hands of Sanra, and we will have to make sure that our bid is not only competitive, but also that the public is afforded the best possible solution,” he explains.

Despite the consortium’s belief that the Superhighway will offer the best possible solution for the congestion dilemma on theJohannesburg-to-Pretoria corridor, the proposed project has already come under some heavy fire from various organisations and indivi-duals.

South African Automobile Association (AA) public affairs manager Gary Ronald informs Engineering News that the organisation is not in favour of the proposed project.

“We are not convinced that the project is viable or that it will truly be to the benefit of motorists.

“We are also concerned about the possible impact that the project could have on road safety, particularly if an excessive number ofvehicles are travelling in the untolled sections,” he adds.

The motoring body has also criticised the proposed toll tariff, saying that it is “far too high and totally out of reach of the average motorist”.

Although the AA agrees that congestion is a major problem and that measures will have to be taken to deal with this issue, it is not in favour of this particular solution.

Instead, it is proposing that a dedicated lane, similar to the US model, be used for vehicles with more than one occupant.

Vaughan Mostert, senior lecturer at Rand Afrikaans University’s Department of Transport and Logistics Management, also questions the reasoning behind the proposed toll project, arguing that South Africa can well afford to divert a fraction of what it overspends on private motoring (approximately R40-billion a year) into fixing roads, without having to rely on tolls.

Some other objections listed by interested and affected parties include the tolling concept being nothing more than a form of double taxation and that it is completely unnecessary to toll existing State-financed roads.

The GSC has responded to this criticism, stating that public resistance is part and parcel of the process.

“Naturally, people do not want to pay toll fees, but, at the same time, most people are also fed-up with the congestion problem on these roads, and there is a general consensus that doing nothing is not an option,” Maruma says.

Erasmus points out that this project is not just about relieving congestion on the roads, but also maintaining and upgrading the roads in the future.

“It is important to note that the winning concessionaire will not only be responsible for the maintenance of the tolled lanes within the corridor, but also the untolled sections, which will free up provincial government to spend more money on the maintenance of other untolled roads,” he explains.

According to the draft scoping report on the proposed project, South Africa possesses a fuel-tax levy where money is supposed to be transferred to a dedicated road fund for the upgrading and maintenance of road networks.

However, according to the draft report, government has not applied the fuel system in the way it was intended, in that funds are notdirected to a dedicated fuel fund, but rather to the general fiscus, where it is spent on other more pressing needs, which has led to a shortage of funds for the upkeep of the South African road network.

Sanra engineering executive Koos Smit explains that it is forthis very reason that private sector initiatives, such as the proposedSuper-highway project, arenecessary.

“Unfortunately, up to now, funding for untolled roads has not been adequate, which is why we are experiencing such decay of our roads,” Smit says.

According to Smit, South Africa’s road network consists of national roads and national routes.

Of these, only national roads fall under the jurisdiction of Sanra, while national routes are still the responsibility of provincial governments.

National roads cover around 7 200 km, of which 5 200 km is untolled and being funded from the national fiscus, while the remaining 2 000 km is tolled.

The tolled roads are split into about 600 km of agency toll-roads (operated by Sanra) and 1 400 km of concession toll-roads.

At the request of provincial government premiers, the national routes (about 12 800 km) will now also be incorporated in the national road network, thereby bringing Sanra’s total network to 20 000 km.

“It is our intention to toll at least 2 000 km of these national routes,” reveals Smit, adding that this would ultimately free up more money to maintain and upgrade those roads funded through the national fiscus.

Sanra CEO Nazir Alli tellsEngineering News that the public generally does not recognise the benefits that toll-roads offer tocommuters. These benefits, he says, include better-quality roads and faster travelling times.

“Unfortunately, there is a culture of nonpayment in South Africa and people expect government to provide,” he laments.

According to Alli, the Superhighways project is being seen as partof an integrated transport development programme that intertwines with the proposed Gautrain project.

“We believe that these two projects are complementary and that they will offer the public transport options that are not only convenient but also designed to alleviate traffic congestion,” he concludes.
Edited by: Zonika Botha
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