Scrapping Gauteng toll road system a costly idea

A public outcry has effectively postponed the implementation of the Gauteng toll road system, but a definitive scrapping of the project could cost taxpayers even more than they realise.

Next month the Gauteng government will pay as much as R280-million to Bombela Concession Company, the Gautrain operator, for the financial year end as an “income guarantee”, because it has not met the necessary passenger or income levels. In terms of the concession agreement, a further R360-million-a-year income guarantee has been budgeted for the next three years.

What happens thereafter will depend on how many commuters use the final rail link, as well as on the fate of the Gauteng tolling system.

The chief executive of the Gautrain Management Agency, Jack van der Merwe, said that before 2006 a “state of preference study” was conducted to see which factors would entice commuters to change their mode of transport. “Surety of time came out tops,” he said. “But the increased capacity of the roads [due to upgrades in preparation for the toll route] has made the time factor less valid.”

Talk of tolls did prompt the Gautrain to expect a shift from road to train, and if the tolling project falls through “we will have to look at the impact”, Van der Merwe said.

Initially expected to be enforced in June last year, the toll road system has officially been placed on hold because of public objections. According to the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral), the Gauteng freeway improvement project is expected to generate R300-million a month. The money collected from the tolls will not go into the fiscus, but will pay the debts incurred by the project and be used to maintain the toll roads. At present, Sanral is unable to float its bonds.

But Van der Merwe claims that everything is on track. There are now 34 000 train commuters a day, 12 000 bus users and 7 000 occupied parking bays.

Although the expected commuter count was 100 000 once the project had stabilised, Van der Merwe said the current numbers were predicted. “The ramp-up period takes three to five years,” he said. “Gautrain should become profitable in the next five or six years.”

The income guarantee, Van der Merwe said, was budgeted from the get-go and the R280-million was well under a budget of R360-million for the year, because the train was not operational for a full financial year.

But former Democratic Alliance transport spokesperson Stuart Farrow said the unmet targets were not budgeted for.

“Everyone was assuming it would meet its numbers [of more than 100 000 passengers a day] and now that it isn’t, the government must find the money somewhere.”

The Gautrain project is estimated to have cost almost R27-billion. Farrow said this would have been better spent on the existing Metrorail system than on “this white elephant”.

He said it was time to look at whether the project was sustainable.

Gautrain has also experienced bad publicity of late regarding illegal strikes, cable theft and overhead electrical system failure, all of which caused disruptions to the system.

“Even if the tolls are implemented, it may be cheaper to travel by road than use the Gautrain and all the risks associated with it,” Farrow said.

The construction of the final link has been plagued by an inflow of water into the tunnel between Rosebank and Park stations. When the link opens, supposedly in April, passenger numbers are expected to increase by 25%, said Van der Merwe.

The Mail & Guardian was informed by Sanral’s public relations agency that chief executive Nazir Alli was no longer permitted to field media requests, all of which had to be put to the board. The board had not responded to questions at the time of going to print.

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