A tolling gantry near Allandale offramp on the N1 South. Picture: Cara Viereckl.

If you don't like the price of a toll road, hop on a taxi, bus or a train instead.

This is the message from Transport Minister Sbu Ndebele, who, in an apparent response to public outrage at proposed toll fees in Gauteng, told journalists in Cape Town that residents of Africa's economic engine now have a choice of transport modes and therefore cannot complain about the price of tolls.

"It is not as if people in that province don't have a choice ... You are no longer forced to take your car and take the back roads (to avoid toll roads) ... there is a very clear choice that the whole continent of Africa does not have."

He said this message had so far not been "properly articulated" by the government.

Ndebele suggested that other forms of road - and rail - transport offered Gauteng residents alternatives to tolled roads and noted that public transport cost about 16 cents per kilometre, compared to about 66 cents per kilometre for private transport.

"The Gauteng user today faces choices based on cost and the degree of convenience. The (more) varied the choice, the easier the decision," he said.

Ndebele identified these choices as: the Gautrain; the freeways between Tshwane, Johannesburg and OR Tambo International Airport; the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) commuter and business express services; as well as alternative road routes. "All these projects, totalling about R60-billion, came at a cost. The question South Africa must ask is where this cost should be located?" he asked rhetorically.

And for residents of Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth - who might envy the apparent transport choices of Gautengers - the message was clear: you are next.

The transport department plans to bring similar transport alternatives to all major centres in the coming years, but Ndebele conceded that existing funding models might prove insufficient.

Most major infrastructure projects in South Africa are funded through a three-pronged approach that includes the fiscus (government spending), the end user and private capital.

"The question of roads financing is a challenge we face as a country ... We will look at options such as public/private partnerships, the user pays principle and other potential sources of funding so that we avoid overburdening the user," he said.

The department would host a "roads funding conference" in Durban in March and an "international investors' conference" in June to discuss road and rail infrastructure funding with key sectors of the transport and construction industries.

Ndebele also said Gauteng's traffic congestion could not be solved simply by building more roads. "A more sustainable approach is to increase the number of alternatives to the road user," he said.

Asked if proposed tolling would push up food and other prices as transport companies passed a steep rise in costs on to consumers, Ndebele said his department was meeting with representatives from this sector to "address their concerns" ahead of the tolling rollout in June. He also invited other key players in the transport sector to approach the department "with their ideas".

Ndebele predicted that by June the Gautrain would move at least 40 000 people every hour - "stress free and in less than 40 minutes" - on the line between Tshwane and Johannesburg. The system would include 125 feeder buses operated by a consortium that included taxi operators.

"The cost will be less than driving to work, but more than the cost of existing public transport systems such as the taxi," he claimed.

The transport minister also promised that rural areas would not be left behind as the country embarks on massive infrastructure spending - totalling about 846 billion - over the next three years.

"It is today the turn of Gauteng but tomorrow it must be rural South Africa. The people of Musina in Limpopo, Ulundi in KwaZulu-Natal and Mthatha in the Eastern Cape also deserve these choices ... It is our responsibility to find the best financing options for these projects when it is the turn of the others."

Meanwhile, the FF Plus has criticised the involvement of a foreign company - Austrian firm Kapsch TrafficCom AG - in a consortium that will run the Gauteng Open Toll Gate System.

"We find it totally unacceptable that a foreign company will be managing the collection of toll fess … while South African companies are currently struggling and unemployment is one of the central problems of the country," said Anton Alberts, the party's transport spokesman.

"It is beginning to be clearer that the toll gate system has been developed to milk the public and serve the government and certain corporate interests only.

The fact that GijimaAST, the South African company which had previously been involved in a legal wrangle with the Department of Home Affairs, also forms part of the consortium, is further proof that certain individuals keep on being favoured regardless of their performance record," he added. -The Star