The biggest issue around the drive to toll the freeways refurbished under the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP) is the lack of consultation, says South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) general-secretary Zenzo Mahlangu.
Speaking at a debate on the proposed tolling of around 200 km of Gauteng freeways, hosted by the Johannesburg Press Club, he described the consultation that took place after the February announcement of the toll fee structure by the South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral) as “symbolic only”.
“If we could all bring ideas [forward], we would have had a better project.”
Public anger over the toll structure as proposed in February saw the Department of Transport initiate a consultation process which produced new, lower toll fees at the end of June.
However, these tariffs are still to be approved by Transport Minister Sibusiso Ndebele.
One of the suggestions to fund the multibillion-rand bill for the new roads has been to charge a ringfenced infrastructure fuel levy, instead of the R40c/km toll fee Gauteng motorists, with etags, would pay under the new toll-fee proposal.
However, Deputy Transport Minister Jeremy Cronin in July stated that this mechanism would probably not be entertained by Ndebele, and that tolling remained the most viable option for the GFIP as it currently stood.
Mahlangu emphasises that tolling will affect all consumers, in spite of the promises made about a less congested road ensuring a more productive workforce.
“This animal has so many tails. It will have a very, very depleting effect on the pockets of consumers.
“With the crisis in public transport, driving our own scraps (sic) would be impossible . . . and unaffordable.”
Mahlangu says the safety, convenience, inte- gration and affordability of public transport are also of concern to Satawu.
He notes that it takes three minibus taxis to reach Sandton from Soweto, with parents then often leaving home before their children wake and arriving home after they have already gone to bed.
University of Johannesburg Department of Transport and Supply Chain Management senior lecturer Dr Vaughan Mostert also supports the idea of improved public transport, noting that “ten times more” people must use such systems in South Africa.
He also urges government to finally put in place a national transport body, in accordance with its policy, that can introduce integrated public transport.
Mostert believes it will serve Gauteng better to have bus routes running from Vanderbijl- park to Moloto, Heidelberg to Hammanskraal, and another “four or five routes” linking Pretoria and Johannesburg rather than a “four-lane highway”.
Business Unity South Africa acting executive director for economic policy Coenraad Bezuidenhout has praise for Sanral as “government’s most effective implementing agency”, but also points out its inability to make policy – and, therefore, implement alternatives to toll fees.
The fuel levy falls within the ambit of the National Treasury.
Bezuidenhout said Busa is still investigating the lowered toll fee structure, but is not yet in a position to comment on it, as it still has some questions pending with Sanral CEO Nazir Alli.
He says the two sides of the debate are whether the GFIP should be funded through urban tolls or a ringfenced fuel levy, or urban tolls and a ringfenced fuel levy.
Bezuidenhout also raises the point that Gauteng contributes 34% of South Africa’s gross domestic product, with nearly all goods passing through Gauteng at some point in time, making the GFIP toll project a “national issue”, as “costs will be passed on”.
He adds that no other developing country has urban tolling to the extent planned for South Africa.
“The complexity is mind-boggling.”
Automobile Association of South Africa (AA) public affairs head Gary Ronald highlights that the AA still believes a ringfenced fuel levy to be the “best collection method at the least cost” to recuperate the costs of the GFIP.
South Africa last year raised R32-billion in fuel levies, from which tax rebates for the fisheries and agriculture sectors should then be deducted. Ronald adds that congestion will be a reality on the new freeways within three to four years.
He also says that last year’s R29-billion road infrastructure budget is having less effect than what the AA expected.
He says it appears that government is paying companies three to four times to fix the same road.
Alli responds by saying that the financial cake in South Africa is only so big, and that tolling is viewed as an acceptable solution to fund infrastructure.
He quips that the options available to government are limited and include tolling, with the alternatives being raising taxes, borrowing more money or printing money.
Alli adds that critics are quick to overlook the benefits an improved road system may bring to the economy, such as reducing vehicle running costs, or saving time spent on the road.
“The fact that we created jobs also seems to pass people by.”
He responds to Satawu remarks about the tenders for the GFIP being “flawed” by directing Mahlangu to the auditor-general, who has given Sanral a clean bill of health.
He emphasises that Gauteng’s freeways were in dire need of improvement, and “that doing nothing” was not an option.