The biggest issue around the drive to toll the freeways refurbished under the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP) was the lack of consultation, said South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu) general-secretary Zenzo Mahlangu on Wednesday.
Speaking at a debate on the proposed tolling of around 200 km of Gauteng freeways, hosted by the Johannesburg Press Club, he described the consultation that took place after the February announcement of the toll fee structure by the South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral) as “symbolic only”.
“If we could all bring ideas upfront we would have had a better project.”
Public anger over the toll structure as proposed in February saw the Department of Transport initiate a consultation process which produced new, lower toll fees at the end of June. However, these tariffs are still to be approved by Transport Minister Sibusiso Ndebele.
One of the suggestions to fund the multibillion-rand bill for the new roads had been to charge a ringfenced infrastructure fuel levy, instead of the R40c/km toll fee Gauteng motorists, with etags, would pay under the new toll-fee proposal.
However, Deputy Transport Minister Jeremy Cronin last week stated that this mechanism would probably not be entertained by Minister Ndebele, and that tolling remained the most viable option for the GFIP as it currently stood.
Mahlangu emphasised that tolling would affect all consumers, no matter the promises made about a less congested road ensuring a more productive workforce.
“This animal has so many tails. It will have a very, very depleting effect on the pockets of consumers.
“With the crisis in public transport, driving our own scraps (sic) would be impossible . . . and unaffordable.”
Mahlangu said the safety, convenience, integration and affordability of public transport were also of concern to Satawu.
He noted that it took three minibus taxis to reach Sandton from Soweto, with parents then often leaving home before their children woke and arriving home after they had already gone to bed.
University of Johannesburg Department of Transport and Supply Chain Management senior lecturer Dr Vaughan Mostert also supported the idea of improved public transport, noting that “ten times more” people must use such systems in South Africa.
He also urged government to finally put in place a national transport body, as per its policy, that could introduce integrated public transport.
Mostert believed it would serve Gauteng better to have bus routes running from Vanderbijlpark to Moloto, Heidelberg to Hammanskraal, and another “four or five routes” linking Pretoria and Johannesburg rather than a “four-lane highway”.
Business Unity South Africa acting executive director economic policy Coenraad Bezuidenhout had praise for Sanral as “government’s most effective implementing agency”, but also pointed out its inability to make policy – and, therefore, implement alternatives to toll fees.
The fuel levy fell within the ambit of National Treasury.
Bezuidenhout said Busa was still investigating the lowered toll fee structure, but was not yet in a position to comment on it, as it still had some questions pending with Sanral CEO Nazir Alli.
He said the two sides of the debate were whether the GFIP should be funded through urban tolls or a ring-fenced fuel levy, or urban tolls and a ring-fenced fuel levy.
Bezuidenhout also raised the point that Gauteng contributed 34% of South Africa’s gross domestic product, with nearly all goods passing through Gauteng at some point in time, making the GFIP toll project a “national issue”, as “costs will be passed on”.
He added that no other developing country had the extent of urban tolling planned for South Africa.
“The complexity is mind-boggling.”
Automobile Association of South Africa public affairs head Gary Ronald highlighted that the AA still believed a ring-fenced fuel levy to be the “best collection method at the least cost” to recuperate the costs of the GFIP.
South Africa last year raised R32-billion in fuel levies, from which tax rebates for the fisheries and agricultural sectors should then be deducted.
Ronald added that congestion would be a reality on the new freeways within three to four years.
He also added that last year’s R29-billion road infrastructure budget was having less effect than what the AA had anticipated.
He said it appeared as if government was paying companies three to four times to fix the same road.
Alli responded to the panellists by saying that the financial cake in South Africa was only so big, and that tolling was viewed as an acceptable solution to fund infrastructure.
He quipped that the options available to government were limited, and included tolling, with the alternatives being raising taxes, borrowing more money or printing money.
Alli added that critics were quick to overlook the benefits an improved road system could bring to the economy, such as reducing vehicle running costs, or saving time spent on the road.
“The fact that we created jobs also seem to pass people by.”
He also responded to Satawu remarks about the tenders for the GFIP being “flawed”, by directing Mahlangu to the auditor-general, who had given Sanral a clean bill of health.
He emphasised that Gauteng’s freeways were in dire need of improvement, and “that doing nothing” had not been an option.