The toll man is preparing to demolish his network of toll-collection plazas throughout South Africa over the next three years in preparation for a revolutionary new scheme – open-road tolling.

However, the sting in the tail is that motorists will still have to pay toll fees.

Instead of stopping at plazas to pay, passing motorists will be charged automatically via an electronic scanning system which detects transponder chips fitted to windscreens.

All vehicles will effectively become mobile credit cards, “swiping” themselves through scanning devices fitted to overhead gantries on freeways. Plazas and boom gates will disappear.

At the end of each month, motorists will receive bills in the post.

Nazir Alli, chief executive of the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral), said the payment options were like buying airtime for a cellphone.

The first open road tolling (ORT) pilot project was due to become operational in Gauteng in November next year, shortly after the 2010 World Cup.

The toll collection revolution will begin on a 145km network of roads in Gauteng, which include sections of the N1, N3, N12 and R21 freeways. The initial plan is to install overhead scanners (and cameras) at 42 points along these routes.

Thereafter, the system will be rolled out across the country over two years.

The Mariannhill toll plaza between Durban and Pietermaritzburg was likely to be the first toll collection point to be demolished and replaced in KZN, followed by other toll plazas along the N2 North and the South Coast.

The first such tolling scheme was introduced in Norway in 1987, and similar schemes have been implemented in several cities around the world, including Santiago (Chile), Singapore, London, Oslo and Stockholm. Sanral has already advertised a pre-qualification tender scheme for the Gauteng ORT project and a “national transaction clearing house”.

But is South Africa ready for such a scheme, and will it be viable, given widespread problems in collecting traffic offence fines from the minibus taxi industry and other road users?

“Why should we not be ready?” Alli retorted. “I don’t think we should allow the much-maligned minibus industry to rule our lives. We will have direct communication with the SAPS.”

To ensure toll payments are made, all scanning gantries will be equipped with cameras to capture the back and front number plates of vehicles. Habitual offenders who failed to pay will be easily traced via their number plates.

The Automobile Association has estimated there about 13.5 million vehicles on South African roads (of which about four million are unregistered).

The AA is also worried that an ORT system on existing roads in busy cities could lead to significant congestion on back roads by motorists who choose to dodge the new tolls.

Sanral notes that motorists who fail to pay their tolls could be dealt with by a variety of methods, such as regular traffic police patrols and the new points demerit scheme being implemented in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

In terms of this scheme, motorists face losing their licences under a demerit system. Each traffic offence – from speeding to licensing offences – leads to the progressive deduction of points. Once all the allotted points have been used up, the driver’s licence is suspended.

According to Alli, one of the major benefits of the open road toll system is the potential to reduce congestion.

The electronic transponders – e-tags – will be distributed free to registered users, and they will also be available from service stations and supermarkets.

The intention is to offer special concession fees to regular users.

Sanral says many toll plaza staff will lose their positions over a period of years, but there are plans to reskill some of them to fulfil other roles in the envisaged ORT scheme.
The new scheme is likely to please motorcyclists, who have been penalised disproportionately for 20 years.

Because the current plaza scheme is based on the number of axles, rather than weight, motorbikes have been charged the same tariffs as cars.

Responding to written questions in Parliament recently from the Freedom Front Plus, the Transport Ministry confirmed it was considering creating a separate tolling category for motorcycles under the ORT system.

PUBLICATION: (The Murcury) (Page 1)
AUTHOR: Tony Carnie
DATED: 13th March 2009