File picture: Karen Sandison

Let’s talk about Sanral’s plans to toll the N1/N2 through the Winelands and let’s try to do it calmly, says Mike Wills.

Cape Town - The mere mention of Sanral gets the hissing classes into a hissy fit and reason tends to leave the room through one door while expensive lawyers come in through another.

No one likes to pay tolls and clearly there are no votes in supporting their imposition as the DA, the Western Cape ANC and Cosatu all oppose these plans vociferously.

Such rare political unanimity provokes in me a suspicion that this might mean that the SA National Roads Agency actually is in the right.

Almost every road expansion or upgrading is usually opposed and grumbled about by the majority who will be equally agitated when the existing infrastructure proves inadequate – they don’t understand the necessary trade-off.

I dug into the lengthy 2002 Final Environmental Impact Report on the tolling (which was originally given the seductive title of the Protea Parkways Project).

It’s a surprisingly clear read and makes a reasonable case for the plans which involve 105km of the N1 from the R300 to the Hex River Valley and 70km of the N2 from the R300 to Bot River.

What intrigued me was that this all began with “an unsolicited proposal” in 1998 from a consortium of big construction companies.

Maybe that expression – “an unsolicited proposal” – is a legality rather than a literality but it implies that the Winelands tolling wasn’t part of a strategic plan by Sanral but rather was a reaction to a business proposition.

That has to be fundamentally wrong.

I’ve no problems with public-private partnerships in road building, nor, in principle, with tolling but this should be driven from a needs-based masterplan and a Treasury-approved financing model.

Which leads me to doubt the lumping together of the N1 and the N2 in this project. That increasingly looks like a forced marriage to suit commercial economies of scale because those are two very different routes.

The N2 actually is in reasonable shape and carries far fewer heavy vehicles than the N1. It has the age-old issues through Somerset West (which appear to be much improved of late excepting holiday pressure points) and is in need of safety work up over Sir Lowry’s, but, other than that, routine maintenance should be enough for foreseeable future demand.

The N1, however, is wall-to-wall heavy trucks day and night – it is our economic umbilical cord with the rest of the nation. The road takes a terrible pounding and is plainly inadequate in several sections, especially just beyond Worcester.

The Sanral report also points out that the fuel levy, which most of us assume is a form of user-pays tax which goes into roads, actually disappears into the general fiscus, so there’s need other sources of funding.

So here’s my solution:

Pravin Gordhan must put that fuel levy back where it belongs – ring-fenced for road building.

Forget the N2 for now – there’s no justification for tolling it – and also forget the N1 this side of the Huguenot Tunnel as it’s a peri-urban route which will have too much economic fallout.

I’m not convinced by the case for a second tunnel, but if a properly independent assessment says it’s essential, go for it: toll it appropriately, then radically upgrade the N1 beyond Worcester and toll it with extremely high tariffs for trucks.

And then work with Transnet which has just ordered 1 064 new locomotives at a cost of R50 billion and which could be pulling the cargo which should be on the rails to and from Gauteng and not battering the N1.

* Mike Wills’ column Open Mike appears in the Cape Agus every Wednesday.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus