How Gauteng's toll roads will work

The South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) is set to implement its open-road tolling system in April next year, and the cost structure has come under the spotlight—how exactly hidden costs will be passed on to the consumer.

The routes that will be affected are the N1 from Pretoria, the R24 to the R21 to Pretoria and Johannesburg’s ring roads on the Randburg and Alberton routes. There will be 185km of toll infrastructure in total.

Nazir Alli, the CEO of Sanral, says that high traffic volumes (between 100 000 and 200 000 vehicles a day) make a conventional toll impractical, so the best way to monitor and control payment is by means of electronic toll technology. This will be the biggest implementation of its kind in the world.

As far as we know, Sanral’s base rate per kilometre for light vehicles, with or without a trailer, will be 50c per kilometre before discounts. This still has to be ratified by the minister of transport, and the figure of 65c per kilometre has been bandied about, but the final figure has not been arrived at just yet.

According to Tony Twine of Econometrix, this “50c per kilometre” is such a vague base figure as to be almost meaningless. How has this figure been arrived at and how will proposed discounts for more frequent road users be calculated?

Theoretically, if you travel 500km a month and you don’t qualify for a discount, you will pay R250 a month for the privilege of using the national road.

According to Gary Ronald, head of public affairs at the Automobile Association (AA), the average, office-bound motorist simply doesn’t have the disposable income to afford this every month. Many road users will try to find alternative routes to avoid the tolls, and Ronald believes that, because the existing road infrastructure is already past capacity, this will not help—either in terms of time management, or impact on the environment.

For example, people living in the Fourways area who would normally take the highway into the Jo’burg CBD could now start commuting along William Nicol, which already turns into a parking lot at peak times.

Remember, too, that company car benefits are changing from next year, so we’re already looking at reduced company car benefits for motorists. These tolls will only add more financial pressure.

The ideal solution would be to change your job or live closer to where you work. But how many of us can really opt for that solution?

Who pays more
According to Ronald, motorists will be affected in a number ways: having to fork out more for the toll, having to contend with rising fuel costs and also perhaps having to absorb costs incurred by commercial vehicles delivering bread and milk five times a day—these vehicles don’t qualify for concessions, so they will have to find a way to cover costs. Ultimately, the consumer will suffer if the bread price goes up because supermarkets are paying more for deliveries.

Yes, motorbikes, frequent travellers, off-peak travellers and public transport operators will receive a discount, as will e-tag holders—but this really does seem like more of a sop than anything else.

Freight vehicles will bear the load in more ways than one—the cost will be R3,50 per kilometre before discounts. Assuming a truck travels 500km a month and does not receive a discount, the owner will pay R1 750 to use the open-road toll route.

Emergency services will be exempt from paying toll fees.

Another tax burden?
Sanral has justified these costs in terms of the increasing maintenance and repair costs to bad roads. Alli has also pointed out that Sanral gets no direct funding from the fuel levy, which goes straight into the fiscus—it has had to raise its own funds for maintenance and road improvements.

According to latest figure, Sanral has now raised R20,7-billion of bonds for the expansion and upgrade of toll roads, particularly the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP).

Twine says that the levy for road maintenance vanished when VAT was introduced in 1991, and a composite fuel levy came in together with VAT. There is, of course, no VAT on the fuel price, so we continue to pay a fuel levy and taxes that should be used to pay for our roads, increasing our tax burden.

Since mid-2008, Sanral has spent more than R550-million on maintaining toll roads and networks as part of the GFIP—a not inconsiderable sum. Alex van Niekerk, GFIP leader, has even said the toll money will go some way towards repaying the debt incurred to complete the programme.

Apart from paying for the infrastructure, the National Treasury argues that the toll fees will also act as an incentive for people to move from private to public transport. The fees will push more commuters on to the Gautrain, for example, but public transport is not yet accessible enough for most motorists to make the switch. Car pooling may become more popular, however.

How do the tolls work?
Electronic toll points are being constructed every 10km along Gauteng’s busy freeways. These toll points will electronically record number plates and speeds, thanks to electronic tags that must be inserted in vehicles. The system will then calculate fees at toll points.

You can link your account to your bank account or credit card if you wish, or use the prepaid option, which means you can top up when required.

Tags will be sold for a nominal fee and can be used on all Sanral toll roads across South Africa. If new users come to Gauteng, they will be able to buy tags or day passes. Vehicles from across the border can buy tags or tickets at various stages of their journeys to Gauteng.

It sounds simple enough, but the logistics are mind-boggling. Electronically recording number plates or tags will mean that each vehicle will be linked to a user account—though one account may include a number of vehicles.

Sanral will contract metro departments and other agencies to act on real-time information from the electronic tolls to make the drivers of unregistered vehicles pay their tolls, or it will issue tickets.

When Smart Money asked how Sanral will issue four million tags or “intelligent” licence plates to Gauteng vehicles in just six months, Alli explained that a new rollout of this magnitude is a bit like Microsoft’s releasing a new product and “patches” to improve that product and make it 100% effective over time.

The system will integrate with eNatis for violations, vehicle identification and driver demerits—but Sanral has admitted that the delays and flaws in eNatis create a definite problem.

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