“Biggest failing of etolls in the world”— A PODCAST on SAFM, from the 26th October 2018. We discussed eTolls and the use of abuse of the fuel levy for this. I was more focused on the legitimacy issue because it is radio, in this piece it’s more about development.
The dominant narrative behind the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project, GFIP, is misleading to the average person. One reason is because many people think “e-tolls” is huge basket in the hands of politicians, shareholders and companies involved just waiting to loot taxpayers money. It is not discussed as a technology that is aimed at improving the efficiency of moving through the national highway road network in a seamless, effective and financially manageable manner. It’s not viewed as an opportunity to improve and demonstrate that in SA, road users are willing to invest and citizens are capable of grasping the long term national goals.
It can be so convenient that one could think of it as an Uber for highway and long distance travel in South Africa. Perhaps if the discussion was more focused on the importance and role of the technology itself, as a solution to the long queues found on our highways during festive seasons and other peak times the conversation would take a different tone– that’s too long term(?). For now we’re still talking about the 500km GFIP which is a question of technology, legitimacy and groups advocating disobedience for appeal.
ETag, eTolling and all that
First things first, e-tolling technology is a tag that is installed in a transport vehicle– truck, car or public transport. The tag basically comes with a card that can be loaded with money. When there is money, you have access to the orange lanes, or “e-tag” lanes on highways and simply pay by slowing down and not stopping completely. Most people still queue to pay cash, and card while someone using an e-tag simply zips through the highway line. It’s so sad to look at these e-tag holders just flying past you when you know they can sometimes be the slowest drivers on the road. In fact, many trucks on national highways have these tags included so while you have a great series of opportunities to overtake throughout your single or double-lane journeys: the skill is useless when all of them overtake you because you’re stuck in line. This is also very disruptive for long distance passenger transport. But my point is that this tag is not only for use in Gauteng, and the money does not only go to pay off the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project.
Some of the national highways are run by concession companies, they find the technology helpful in improving the productivity of the roadway infrastructure, and also the ease of payment. While it is a very convenient solution for people travelling long distances frequently or only during festive seasons, the payments are used to ensure that the roadways are improved, maintained and monitored in a manner that supports local communities and the development of the area. In this sense, not paying one’s tolls if most of them come from your other journeys– assuming there was a malfunction at the boom gate– results in very unfair behavior.
The main question here is more about why people are not compliant to a policy position– in Gauteng, yes, but if gantries were introduced nationally and number plates were attached to cash accounts, for instance, would households pay for the road infrastructure and services they use?
The manner in which people in Gauteng are responding to the GFIP may actually be symptomatic of how highway users might use the gantries if they are required to pay without stopping at any control point. The main question here is more about why people are not compliant to a policy position– in Gauteng, yes, but if gantries were introduced nationally and number plates were attached to cash accounts, for instance, would households pay for the road infrastructure and services they use?
A shift from social good roads to roads as investments
Secondly, do households find the “user-pay” principle as a legitimate policy mechanism in the face of sub-optimal public sector behavior? There is a substantial distance between the extent to which drivers and public transport operators in Gauteng are willing to interact with this issue. This could be because the treatment was not fundamentally consistent with their expectations, nor was the information available suitable enough to lean against the wave of media around the topic.
Moreso the advocacy against the approach to raising capital and funding infrastructure focuses on roads as social goods. We’re not in 1994, where subsidies, and social goods were justified to propel an economy that inherited debt from artificial, racist and segregative policies. At some point the country will not afford to maintain the welfare status quo and middle classes, graduates and any able working person will need to carry fair weight to build the nation. Hence the user pay principle.
The middle classes in particular will develop a willingness to invest in our country, communities, families and ourselves reflected through the user pay principle.
The user pay principle reveals a shift from the social good of roads to road infrastructure as business. The argument that roads are social goods only holds up to a certain point because more highways imply more cars driving for free– while the majority use public transport that is low on serious ring fenced funding. Most people can not afford the true cost of public transport services hence the subsidies reflect the cost and number of passengers of each technology. It is also the reason why we must question whether most of the country’s commuters are fundamentally subsidized by the minibus taxi industry–which is something Dr Mathetha Mokonyama once asked about online (here is a proposed approach to subsidizing the minibus taxi industry). At the same time, some of the lanes will need to be allocated to vehicles with 4 or more people (detected by Infrared maybe) and public transport only, which could be good– but we need more rail transport though. The truth is we need to focus on how to develop and work with the eToll investment in a way that can further distribute improved quality of life for the majority. Perhaps improving the credit rating for our country and projects so that we can attract better technology, infrastructure and systems to support our growing skills base (i.e. more qualified labour in the country).
The legitimacy of the user pay principle
The legitimacy of the user pay principle is probably under question because of the way in which our country was captured. Trust is lost in government even if the process of rooting corruption out in public and private sector will take time and won’t squash it completely–the looting went on for too long. My view is that we are now at a place where the work to root the looting out and systems in place to do so are emerging. Assumptions in 2010 do not apply now because we have a new demographic; increased internet access; a contentiousness political environment, innovating colleges and universities; and growing middle-classes. We’re in a new country because the born free generation is actually very serious about getting into wealth and building legacies for their families beyond a Bentley. The middle classes in particular will develop a willingness to invest in our country, communities, families and ourselves reflected through the user pay principle.
As a result, where the Organization Undoing Tax Abuse, OUTA, “advocacy” group argued that the technology is not workable, or that the operating costs are too high (compared to “other countries”), we must ask why they do not advocate for improvements, innovations etc. instead of scrapping. Where Gauteng leadership argue that the tolls need to be scrapped, we must ask how they plan to manage and fund the long term demands from freight, passenger and logistics that go hand in glove with economic development.
At a National level, the disobedience is great for road users in the short term, but it’s going to be a long term debt trap for our country and trap us into taking short cuts until our nation bleeds.
These arguments may hold in the legal sense and popularity contests, political or social media spaces, but they lack serious foresight regarding the economic development needs of our country. Especially when they argue that we must use the fuel levy to fund the 500km of the GFIP out of the 41 000km of Roads in Gauteng (maybe 40 500km were funded by the levy already)–1.2% of all the roads in GP, no actually its 500km of the 53 000km of roads. Out of all the roads in the country, and activities the fuel levy actually funds, this can not be reasonable (I’m excluding other factors to keep this thing “short”).
Civil disobedience is as popular as a high school boy hanging out with the wrong people, he will be the coolest guy, get all the girls, but might not make it to post school education or self actualize as an individual. At a national level, the disobedience is great for road users in the short term, but it’s going to be a long term debt trap for our country and trap us into taking short cuts until our nation bleeds. The last thing we need now is to find ourselves begging for money from the wrong parts of the world, who could employ their citizens to build, operate and eventually take the asset when we don’t make payments. Just like credit cards or machonise, we can’t afford this type of behavior indefinitely as much as state capture was and is profoundly expensive.
While the South African Road Agency Limited, SANRAL, is pushing for huge sums to be paid up and sending out letters etc., is the hot topic now, the agency needs to take a different view too. SANRAL did well to invest in a policy that argues for commensurate mobility where tolls are imposed, but is struggling to communicate effectively, genuinely and empathetically with the public. Road tolling and car use is a difficult topic to grasp if all roads have always been funded by fuel levy, and we seldom feel the pinch. The fact that Gauteng and OUTA leadership are perpetually against and SANRAL is completely stuck in trying to get their debt paid by force shows the age and rusty nature of the debate. I believe, road users anywhere in the country need to take an active, long term view and put our country first.