Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Electronic free flow tolling raises questions in South Africa

Gauteng province toll road network
The  South African National Roads Agency Limited (SANRAL) is recognised by the World Bank (and my own experience) as being probably the best national highways agency in the developing world, certainly the best in Africa.  It runs as a company, contracts out as much as it can to maximise value, treats motorists as its customers and has extensively involved the private sector in its core business.  It has also had relatively free reign to use tolls when insufficient funds were available for major projects.  It has rigorously used economic analysis to optimise maintenance expenditure over new works, and preferring small high value projects to major projects.  In short, there are plenty of countries that could learn from South Africa, including more than a few developed ones.

In Gauteng province, SANRAL decided to move forward to converting all of its toll roads to fully electronic free flow open road tolling from later this year, but controversy has arisen from the proposals.  DSRC based tolling (tag and beacon) is to be the preferred technology, with users with cars expected to pay an average 44c per km and those without (detected by Automatic Number Plate Recognition) at 66c per km.  Unlike most toll systems I have seen, there will be a discount scheme for heavy users, primarily because most highways are not congested.  This will mean those with DSRC based accounts will pay less if they drive beyond a certain frequency.  According to iOL, "Because Sanral's discount system is based on the amount spent the previous month, it is variable, but you can expect to get between 15 percent and 37.5 percent slashed off your monthly bill."

Yet whilst tolls are not new in South Africa, questions of fairness have arisen for some users, who are unhappy with the need to have a DSRC account to get discounts, and who think motorists can get away with no paying if their number plate if fraudulent.

Criticism has arisen for those who will pay more for not having a DSRC tag, because it is 25% cheaper to use DSRC.  An online toll calculator is here, is quite sophisticated and demonstrates exactly the wide variation in rates depending on usage and charging technology.  The other fear is that stolen and fraudulent number plates will mean that dishonest people will evade the toll in a way they could not do so while barriers remain in place.   That causes media reports like this one to be produced about how open road tolling wont work.   The truth is that if number plate fraud or inaccuracies are over about 15% it is a serious issue, and need to be addressed.  Certainly electronic free flow is technically workable, but it needs an accurate and updated number plate database to be maintained.

The AA and other motorist advocates say that motorists pay taxes for roads and do not believe it is fair, as the price of fuel increases tolls are seen to be another imposition.

The wider concern appears to be simply cost. A backlash has started to appear because of inflation, and tolls are seen as an imposition that does not apply on other roads.

However, SANRAL is now being more conservative with electronic tolls. It has been reported that SANRAL has announced that eventually all of its toll roads will have electronic tolls, but as an alternative to manual tolls, not to replace them.   

Certainly, the number plate issue should be addressed and tolls should be seen as delivering value.  However, it is not SANRAL's fault that other motoring taxes do not all go on roads.  That's a matter for the government , and returns to the key issue for tolling everywhere - motorists need to see value for whatever they pay for using roads, and tolls are a part of that.  At times of economic difficulty they are an easy target for those who think they are being unfairly charged, but transparency about what tolls are used for, and what the alternative are would go a long way.

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