Government must rethink e-tolling

Time of article published Oct 11, 2012

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My heart goes out to our minister of finance, who has to manage the sometimes conflicting short-, medium- and long-term interests without disregarding the incumbent government’s policy objectives. The Gauteng e-tolling saga is one such example. South Africans need to find a way forward that is in the country’s best long-term interests, while also serving its short- and medium-term interests.

We have a good basis from which to find a way forward – a shared understanding of the need to invest in strengthening our country’s infrastructure to sustain and promote our competitiveness and to meet our national development needs.

The challenge is to find a shared approach to finance the required investment in the most cost-effective and sustainable manner.

The opposition to the proposed e-tolling is based on several concerns by civil society groups, trade unions, ordinary citizens and private sector players.

The first objection stems from the inadequate consultations preceding the decision. It is clear there were serious gaps in the consultation and public engagement processes.

Yes, I am aware they ticked the “legal” box of consultation. But clearly something was wrong, if only a handful of objections (about 28 in total) to their notification adverts were received at the end of 2007, from millions of motorists who travel on our highways.

Even the then minister of transport S’bu Ndebele cast doubt on the benefits and research done for the scheme, in response to a question on the efficiency of tolling, raised in parliament in October last year.

Second, there is a lack of transparency (e-toll collection contracts are still not open for public scrutiny) and the fact that foreign companies are commissioned to manage the collection process (why we can’t manage these processes ourselves is beyond me and a sign of our failing skills development programme).

Third, the proposal involves a very expensive mechanism (estimates indicate above R1 billion a year) to collect money (ultimately taxes) from citizens.

It is estimated that the costs are likely to run to between R25bn and R35bn over 20 years to service the contract with service provider ECT JV, for actual capital costs of about R17bn. To disguise this as a user-pay argument is a weak excuse for an inefficient and unpopular system.

Those of us who live in Cape Town do not begrudge Gauteng its road upgrade programme, because we know all too well that Gauteng generates more tax and revenue for the government than any other province. Gauteng has earned its roads.

What’s more, if the government forces this unpopular tax collection system on Gauteng, we know it won’t stop there.

Urban roads are the routes citizens must use to commute to their places of employment, to earn a salary and pay their taxes.

They are the lifeblood of a productive society, and a national asset that was free yesterday and now – because the government has done its job to widen the roads to keep pace with a growing economy – they are no longer free.

To imply that the roads and tolls will be mainly financed by the rich is a gross oversight and implies these roads are not meant for those who cannot afford them.

As Cosatu puts it, this is a case of economic apartheid, which implies that if you are rich and can afford to pay, you are welcome on these highways. Those who desperately cling to survival are not welcome on these roads and should take the potholed back routes.

I believe that the interests of all South Africans will not be served by forcing the issue in this matter. There cannot be a law-enforcement solution to this problem, even if the SA National Roads Agency Limited was to acquire a 250-vehicle police force to force compliance. Non-compliance with e-tolling is estimated to be between 10 percent and 25 percent of road users (incorrect and cloned licence plates are estimated to be over 10 percent).

Compliant citizens will end up subsidising others. Even at a best case scenario of a 90 percent compliance and collection rate (highly unlikely), it will be necessary to chase around more than 100 000 non-compliant road users. Our current stretched judicial system will simply not be able to manage the prosecution.

Great leadership is often required at times such as this. Our government must be big enough to acknowledge that there is a need for a rethink. I am encouraged by announcements that the ministerial committee is exploring a political solution that also makes economic sense.

Suggestions are being put forward, including a top-up on fuel tax, to finance our road infrastructure. This would require zero additional administrative cost and be less regressive. The upper and middle classes, who drive around, are likely to use more fuel and therefore will pay more than poor people.

One of South Africans’ great attributes is their capacity to pull back from the brink and find a compromise solution to save the day. I have no doubt that even in this matter we will be able find a way forward that works for everybody. It may even involve paying a penalty to cancel the ETC JV contract. It may be better to pay a R1bn penalty up front than bequeath an unbearable tax burden to our children and their children.

Let us find a way forward that enables us to focus on this country’s real challenges to ensure that every child matters, every young person has hope for a better future and every citizen is a proud member of a society united in its diversity.

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