As years of construction on Johannesburg’s main highways near an end, toll plazas have sprung up, sparking an outcry from drivers at the rates they will be charged.
The tollways have been in the works since 2007 but public consultations on their introduction drew little interest.
Now that it is nearing time to pay up, an unlikely alliance of transport companies, taxi and automobile associations, chambers of commerce, unions and even the African National Congress Youth League have united against the tolls.
The uproar took government by surprise when the rates were first announced in February.
“The tolls will impose a huge additional burden on road users and hand over grotesque profits to those who will benefit from this system,” said Patrick Craven, spokesperson for the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
“It will have a devastating effect on workers who have no alternative but to drive to work because of the lack of a proper public transport system and will lead to big price increases in the shops to cover the increased cost of transporting goods.”
The proposed tariffs would total about R1 000 per month for a driver making the 60km daily commute between Johannesburg and Pretoria.
The tolls could make drivers turn to the nearly complete Gautrain — but that option has so far done little appease motorists.
Cosatu, an ally of the African National Congress, has threatened a general strike if the government pushes ahead with the tolls.
Launch date delayed again
The toll revenue is needed to pay for the R20-billion borrowed by the South African National Roads Agency to finance upgrades to 185km of highways in Gauteng.
The tolls will kick in only once construction is complete, a date already delayed by months.
E-toll plazas were installed months ago, with cameras that can capture license plates or electronic tags. They were meant to start working last October but that was put off to June, only to be delayed to a new date yet to be announced.
Hoping to contain the public outrage, the government appointed a commission, which made its proposals last month, after the May local elections.
The commission endorsed tolls as a way to finance roadworks but lowered prices by 20% for drivers who use e-tags — automatic payment systems — from 49c to 40c per kilometre for small cars.
Transport minister Sibusiso Ndebele still must sign off on the toll rates. The reduction did little to soothe critics and he is taking his time to make a decision.
The provincial transport boss, Ismail Vadi, has publicly worried that the debate could derail plans to build another 375km of highway, to be financed by tolls. Then there is also the need to maintain roads, where potholes are more and more common.
“A decision must be taken in respect of the remaining phases. Should we proceed with these phases?” Vadi asked.
“If this principle is reviewed, the question must be posed: how do we fund the next phases, given the limited fiscal resources at our disposal.” – AFP