Friday, 8 June 2012

Bangladesh road pricing?

This report from BDNews24 suggests the Bengali government is seriously considering it as an option. The country’s Finance Minister, A M A Muhith believes introducing road pricing across the country would reduce congestion and generate funds to improve road maintenance. 

The report states that “Under the plan, he said, in order to ease traffic congestions, sedan cars should not be allowed to ply on the city roads unless three passengers travel together. "Otherwise, extra toll should be imposed." In short, some sort of HOT lanes, or a congestion charge for all but high occupancy vehicles. Unsurprising, given Mr Muhith is an economist

An article in the country’s Daily Star newspaper elaborates that the Minister is interested in introducing tolls on roads and bridges “wherever possible”. It was supported by Transport management expert Prof Shamsul Hoque of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology in principle, but he claimed it couldn’t work without more public transport. In a city like Dhaka, this is unsurprising, as there is no Metro system as of yet, and bus services battle with gridlocked roads, whilst commuter rail services serve relatively few routes. However, there has been some useful construction of major highways, yet these remain inadequate with insufficient orbital links. In short, urban road pricing in Dhaka would need to be matched by a medium term strategy on highway construction, reform of the bus system and consideration of how to make best use of railway corridors (including development of new ones underground). 

A bigger issue is alluded to in the article, which is that the state and local authorities do not effectively enforce existing traffic laws on safety.  It is likely that having a good six months of hard enforcement followed by ongoing efforts may address congestion in itself, by getting some drivers and vehicles off the roads, but that's another issue.  As such it seems practically impossible to effectively introduce any form of tolls or road pricing that do not involve manual barrier controlled toll booths, if the enforcement regime is not robust. Bangladesh could undoubtedly do with a more robust source of funding for its highway infrastructure, but this should be a matter of a couple of parallel tracks.

 New highways where a toll booth is unlikely to cause congestion problems, can always be tolled. That should be happening now, as it is happening in neighbouring India. However, for the nationwide network the pre-requisite has to be the motor vehicle registry and enforcement of any vehicle registration requirements and basic traffic laws. For if you can’t effectively fine motorists who pose a risk to others on the road, you wont be able to enforce a road pricing system that is dependent on mailing fine notices to vehicle owners. 

Yet if Bangladesh, a country of over 150 million people, with average GDP per capita (PPP) of around US1,700 a year, wanted to, it could consider a Dhaka only road pricing system if that was empowered to enforce, rigorously, against motorists. Such a system could catalyse improvements in safety enforcement, vehicle registration and allow for more road capacity for buses to make a bigger difference. It would also complement the proposed metro. However, this sort of step change would cost serious money in the short term, and would need, in my view, a dedicated traffic police function. 

Yet although Bangladesh is vastly different from many countries considering road pricing, the fundamental problems remain the same: 

- Lack of funds to maintain and improve highway infrastructure; 
- Congestion on roads where demand grossly exceeds supply.

Hopefully the Finance Minister, Mr Muhith, will consider getting some serious consultancy work commissioned on options for his country, which ought to range from a Dhaka only pilot, to the use of fuel tax and motor vehicle registration taxes as interim steps. In any case, it is refreshing to read about any senior politician who understands the value of road pricing as a potential tool to address financing and congestion issues.

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