The highest court overturned an interdict against highway charges, but Wayne Duvenage will not give up, writes Heather Formby.
Perhaps it was the comment made to a journalist after a presentation by South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral) chief executive Nazir Alli that set campaigner and motorists' friend Wayne Duvenage on his crusade against the implementation of the proposed e-tolling funding mechanism for the Gauteng freeway improvement project.
In those days, Duvenage was chief executive of car rental company Avis and the reporter had asked Alli how the e-tolling funding model would work. Alli apparently replied that "it is far too complicated for you guys to understand".
"As an industry, we had got together to try to understand how the e-tolling model would operate so we could work out a way to adjust our systems," Duvenage said.
"Our industry engagements with Sanral raised a number of questions around the inefficiencies of the system. We realised that some serious transgressions had been made regarding the implementation of e-tolling in Gauteng. Very little consultation and questionable research had taken place and most road users were unaware of its implications and costs. It was their sheer arrogance and poor engagement with business and society which made matters worse."
Since then, Duvenage – who started the civil action group Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance at the beginning of the year with other interested parties and left Avis about four months ago – has been on a mission to uncover the details of the project's e-tolling plans and put a stop to them. Although he calls himself the spokesperson for the group, Duvenage has been the public face of the battle against the implementation of what he calls an inefficient and expensive system.
The costs will be recouped from road users each time they drive through one of Gauteng's now infamous gantries with their purple lights, which tweeter Gus Silber suggested could be transformed into rugby posts, discotheque catwalks or garden gazebos.
Duvenage became something of a Clark Kent with motorists when, in April, the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria granted an interdict preventing the project from going ahead.
"We couldn't understand why the road user should foot such an enormous bill when the roads could have been upgraded at a far lower cost to the end user," said Duvenage.
However, the Constitutional Court overturned the interdict last month, opening the door for the government to gazette e-toll tariffs, which are lower than those originally proposed but the same as those gazetted in April.
No date has yet been set for e-tolling's implementation and Duvenage is now preparing for the next court battle – the high court's review hearing, to be heard on November 26 – when he will try, once again, to have the e-project stopped. "We will expose in detail the irrationality and legal transgressions of the project, with a view to having it stopped," Duvenage said.
His argument is compelling, particularly after one has seen the numbers he has deciphered from those available from Sanral, which he criticises for being "cagey" with details.
What seems clear is the capital cost of the road improvements, which would have been R17-billion if the roads alone were improved, but rose to R20-billion once the costs of building the gantries were included. Based on a 7%-a-year interest on this amount, the total cost to repay the debt over a 20-year period would be R39-billion, Duvenage said. But that is the easy part.
Although Duvenage says questions have to be asked about how the project's estimated capital cost of R6.8-billion in 2006 increased so dramatically, his main objections are to the massive amounts road users will pay for the administration and management of the e-tolling gantry system.
He "conservatively" calculates these to amount to R1.3-billion a year and R26-billion over 20 years, which, he points out, is more than the capital costs of providing Gautengers with better highways. The beneficiaries of e-tolling will presumably be the shareholders in the e-tolling consortium, which has a five-year contract and includes Austrian company Kapsch TrafficCom as a major shareholder.
However, Duvenage estimates that although at current tariffs Sanral will incur losses for the first few years e-toll collections will grow and amount to R2.6-billion a year and a massive R115-billion over 20 years before inflationary and road-user increases. He also believes that because the current proposed tariffs are not sustainable, they will be short lived.
"I estimate that Sanral will incur a shortfall on e-toll collections to begin with and will therefore use that as an excuse to increase the toll tariffs as soon as possible," he said. "There is nothing to stop them increasing the current gazetted tariffs and we can be sure that the rates will not be reduced after the project is paid off."
Duvenage advocates for using the fuel levy funding model instead of e-tolling to repay the costs incurred by the Gauteng road improvements. He believes the fuel price would need to be increased by 9c a litre to repay the improvement costs, including interest.
"I cannot see any logical reason why R1.3-billion a year of road users' money should be wasted merely to collect money, when we could pay without incurring these costs," he said. "Why should the consumer pay for an ill-conceived plan, which was never researched properly and was implemented with very little consultation?"
By "ring-fencing" the additional amount added to the fuel levy, Duvenage believes the national treasury could implement a more cost-effective system to recoup the costs of the Gauteng road improvements. He says the only argument he had heard against the fuel levy was questioned why the rest of the country had to pay for Gauteng's roads.
"In our opinion, it is not about which city has the best roads, but rather about having the right road infrastructure in the country as a whole. And because Jo'burg is the economic hub, the more productive it is through its upgraded freeway the better it is for the entire country."
If Duvenage wins his court battle at the end of November it is more than likely that Sanral will appeal the court's decision and, as Duvenage said: "It could get messy." But if e-tolling is stopped altogether, what will happen to all those gantries that now decorate Gauteng highway horizons? Duvenage believes they need not be destroyed but could be used for traffic monitoring, speed enforcement or number-plate-recognition systems to catch criminals.
However, even Superman did not always win his battles against "social injustice and tyranny" and the judge presiding over the court action later this month may not favour Duvenage's arguments.
"We have seen and heard enough resentment against the e-toll plan to realise that the public will not accept this system. We also know that around the world there are examples of e-tolling plans being halted due to non-acceptance by society."