N2 Wild Cost toll road plan forges ahead
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Durban - The SA National Roads Agency is moving steadily towards building the controversial N2 Wild Coast toll road, despite an unresolved court challenge and question marks over whether the new route is affordable, now that KwaZulu-Natal has been “totally excluded” from what had been the original toll plan.
A series of notices in recent editions of the Government Tender Bulletin show that Sanral has started the tender process for contracts to build two multibillion-rand bridges and other road infrastructure that form part of the proposed new toll road from Durban to East London.
This includes cutting a new coastal highway through the scenic and environmentally sensitive Wild Coast region.
The project has been on the drawing boards for more than 15 years but has been blocked by vigorous opposition from the KwaZulu-Natal legislature, the eThekwini Municipality, major industries and commuters south of Durban, along with environmental groups and several rural communities in the Pondoland region.
Though the Department of Environmental Affairs granted environmental authorisation for the project in 2010, a coalition of major industries south of Durban took Sanral to the high court challenging the authorisation on the basis that there had not been a proper social and economic impact assessment.
During the South Coast Business Coalition legal challenge it emerged that Durban commuters and industries were likely to pay more than 30% of total toll fees along the 560km route from Durban to East London, subsidising construction costs in the Eastern Cape. However, the legal challenge was postponed indefinitely in 2014 when Sanral gave an undertaking not to toll the Isipingo section of the N2 “in the foreseeable future”.
Several other mainline or ramp toll plazas south of Isipingo also formed part of the original plan.
With the Durban business challenge seemingly abandoned, the only remaining obstacle appears to be the high court challenge by rural villagers in the Pondoland region who argue that the toll road will have irreversible impacts on local communities, the biologically rich environment and a landscape renowned for its unspoilt beauty.
Sanral argues that a shorter, high-speed route between Durban and East London will boost economic growth and improve the wealth of people in the Eastern Cape and KZN.
“Nothing stealthy going on”
Responding to queries from The Mercury yesterday, Sanral insisted there was nothing stealthy about the recent tenders awarded in the Eastern Cape since it had been upgrading the Wild Coast route since 2011.
On queries whether Sanral planned to build any new toll plazas in KZN - or jack up existing toll fees in KZN - to subsidise the Eastern Cape portion of the route, Sanral spokesman Mbulelo Peterson said: “The N2 Wild Coast Toll Route ends at the KZN/Eastern Cape border. There is no planned construction of additional/new mainline tolls or any additional tariffs on the N2 South Coast linked to the Wild Coast route.”
Asked how the project could be funded without additional tolls for motorists in KZN, Peterson said KZN road users would not be asked to fund roads in the Eastern Cape through tolls.
“Toll booths are always located within the section of road being tolled and Sanral applies a strict and fair user-pay principle and does not cross-subsidise any toll road operation from tolling collected on other tolled roads.”
Where will the money come from?
It was anticipated instead that a new “hybrid funding” scheme would now apply, with tolls charged only on the new “greenfields” sections between Mthatha and Port Edward, Peterson said.
The remainder of the funding would come from a mixture of borrowing and fiscus funding.
“Because the remaining sections will be built over a far longer period of time than the original short period proposed, Sanral was not required to borrow and has managed to fund these projects from grant funding”.
Peterson added that Sanral, the Department of Transport and the National Treasury were still discussing the final funding model, particularly for the two mega-bridges over the Mtentu and Msikaba Rivers which were expected to cost R2.5 billion.
The entire greenfields section was expected to cost an extra R5 billion to 6 billion.
Cormac Cullinan, an attorney representing community groups on the Wild Coast, said while it was not illegal for Sanral to begin the development before the legal appeals had been finalised, it was “highly inappropriate” for a state organ to enter into binding contracts while the matter was subject to review by the high court.
Cullinan said his clients might be compelled to seek an interim interdict, given that the high cost of the Mtentu and Msikaba bridges could result in a major waste of state resources if the environmental authorisation were to be overturned.