Coenie Vermaak doesn’t mince his words. The chief project officer of Electronic Tolling Collections (ETC) says that he fully supports the decision by Transport Minister Blade Nzimande not to scrap e-tolls.
“ETC’s position has always been that scrapping the system is not a simple task as a result of the debt to be paid,” Vermaak told the Saturday Star this week.
“Minister Blade Nzimande’s recent statement confirms the position that ETC has held and has been engaging the public with.”
In March, Nzimande said the “disastrous e-tolls” scheme could no longer be dragged out and a solution was needed to be considered by the Cabinet.
However, speaking last week on SABC News, Nzimande said he was reluctant to pull the plug on the e-tolls scheme because he wanted e-tolls to pay for the R67 billion that was required for the SA National Roads Agencies (Sanral) debt.
While the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) was left baffled by Nzimande’s comments that e-tolls are now set to stay, Vermaak believed that keeping them was the wisest decision the minister could have made.
“It is crucial to work together, the government, Sanral, ETC and the public to find solutions that resolve this problem,” said Vermaak.
ETC was established in 2010 to provide the technology for e-tolling Gauteng’s freeways as well as to manage toll collection on behalf of Sanral. ETC is owned by Austria-based firm Kapsch.
“Keeping e-tolls is a good thing. The principle of the user pays is embedded in the National Development Plan. Paying tolls is an accepted international norm of funding infrastructure projects. The comfort for the road user is that the money paid is ring-fenced and can only be used for tolling.”
Vermaak has urged Gauteng drivers to start paying their bills as e-tolls were set to stay.
“Becoming a compliant road user is not subject to settling historic debt. You can become compliant today and, separately to this, engage with ETC that will try and find a solution on settling historic debt.”
Vermaak added that Sanral had already started initiating legal action against road users who had not settled their debt.
Currently there were about 12000 cases at court.
Vermaak said he also doesn't believe that the fuel levy would change as a result of e-tolls staying.
“The fuel levy is the fourth largest tax revenue stream for the government and this amount just becomes part of the fiscus. It is not separately managed for roads and maintenance.
"The fuel levy is a diminishing fund with new vehicles and technology improvement. The fuel levy, however, hurts the lower-income brackets harder as these citizens drive less fuel-efficient vehicles and therefore pay more tax per kilometre.”
While the majority of Gauteng drivers have been against e-tolls, Vermaak believed the e-tolling system offered several benefits.
“The first tangible benefit is that roads and upgrades can be executed and delivered in a shorter space of time.
"If one looks at the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project and understands the investment potential that was unlocked by this project in Allendale through the Waterfall development and the Menlyn Hub Development, that literally unlocked billions of rand in investment.
"Looking at the current financial data that was published, including the fact that South Africa is in a technical recession, we need to seriously consider these solutions."
While the ETC was pleased that e-tolls would be staying for now, Vermaak said he was unsure about Sanral’s R67bn debt.
According to Hansard, the official record of proceedings in Parliament, then minister of transport Joe Maswanganyi told the House on November 29 last year that the debt was up to R48bn.
During his interview on Thursday, however, Nzimande alleged that Sanral’s debt now amounted to R67bn. That was a R19bn jump in the space of just a few months.
“One can only speculate where this number comes from. Sanral is yet to publish their financial results in the recent financial year.
"What is a fact is that the original cost of construction of R22.5bn has ballooned to about R40bn as a result of the interest payable.”
Trade union federation Cosatu was also baffled by Nzimande’s comments that e-tolls were set to stay.
Spokesperson Sizwe Pamla said this week that his remarks were misleading and that this didn't show unity among the alliance partners.
Pamla said the alliance partner’s structure had never endorsed the controversial e-tolls and it wouldn't happen any time in future.
The Saturday Star