Last month, the Department of Transport, through the South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral), awarded R11,9-billion worth of contracts for the initial phase of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP).

The GFIP is a coordinated attempt through different spheres of government, involving the Ekhuruleni, Tshwane and Johannesburg metropolitan councils as well as provincial and national governments to reduce the ever-increasing traffic congestion levels on Gauteng’s major freeways and create sustainable long-term infrastructure to handle forecast growth in commuter numbers. Interlinked with this challenge is the current absence of adequate public transport systems in the area.

Construction companies Aveng, Group 5, Basil Read, CMC di Ravenna and WBHO have formed five separate joint ventures with other contractors in order to tackle the initial phase of the project. Seven contracts were handed out for phase one, comprising work packages that prioritise South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 soccer World Cup, an event that has acted as a catalyst for infrastructure improvements and expansions all over the country and in many spheres of industry.

The new contract awards follow earlier contracts that were awarded for the upgrade of the N1 between the R21 interchange and the Atterbury interchange, east of Pretoria, where construction has long been under way.

This first of the GFIP’s three planned phases will involve the provision of additional lanes and interchange improvements over 125,5 km of freeway. In general, freeways will be upgraded to four lanes in both directions and, in some sections, up to six lanes. Auxiliary lanes at on- and off-ramps will be added while barrier and pavement improvements and renovations will also take place.

An intelligent transport system (ITS) will be implemented and will include closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras, ramp metering and electronic signage. The CCTV system will help ensure early detection of road incidents and assistance in the event of accidents. Adequate lighting will be installed to ensure the full functionality of the CCTV system and to improve roadside safety.

Speaking at a GFIP presentation in Midrand in May, Sanral northern regional manager Ismael Essa said that, in order to adequately manage the Gauteng congestion problem, an integration of different transport modes would be essential. He explained that the GFIP was focusing on infrastructure provision, as well as modal integration with public transport initiatives like the Gautrain and taxi service, effective travel demand management through the use of high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes and the installation and application of an ITS to help monitor and manage the whole network and subsequently improve incident management.

An ITS has already been installed along the Ben Schoeman highway and will be phased in on other freeways before 2010. “A strategic advantage South Africa enjoys in addressing these critical transport weaknesses is the absence of legacy systems. This means that, instead of pouring continued investment into old systems, we can deploy new technology with its improved delivery outcomes and lower life-cycle costs,” says Intelligent Transport Society South Africa CEO Paul Vorster. “Building more roads alone will only have limited benefits. The improvement of transport must include intelligent measures such as open road tolling systems. The other strategic thrust that needs to complement this is the improvement of public transport systems, as is currently under way.”

HOV lanes will be integrated with bus rapid transit systems, and taxi, bus and train routes, thereby promoting the use of public transport through a formalised scheme.

In light of this, the Department of Transport is actively pursuing options to improve and regulate public transport, especially the taxi network, now that the infrastructure will be in place to support and sustain it. “Our aim is to ensure proper regulation of the taxi industry, which was deregulated by the apartheid government,” says Minister of Transport spokesperson Collen Msibi. “We believe that there is an urgent need to extend the bus subsidy system in order to also include the taxi industry. The taxi industry is the only public transport industry that is not subsidised by the government, even though it transports 65% of the commuters in this country.”

Phase two of the GFIP will focus on the construction of new infrastructure, which Sanral says will be staggered over the period from 2010 to 2020 and is estimated to cost in the region of R10-billion. Essa says that every kilometre of newly constructed road will cost R90-million, excluding the cost of the land itself, while existing road improvements will cost between R25-million and R65-million a kilometre.

The total cost of the GFIP, by the end of the last phase, is expected to be in the region of R23-billion at today’s rates. Sanral announced last year that the project would primarily be financed by commuters who use the roads through the application of a ‘user pay’ principle.

This development, for application after 2010, is a continuous tolling system that will entail toll gantries, positioned at intervals along major routes, to measure each car’s trip and calculate a fee payable for the use of that road every day. At an estimated eight-million transactions a day on Gauteng freeways, Essa expresses confidence that the financing of the GFIP and regular maintenance will be adequately provided through this dedicated funding.

The progress of the GFIP phase 1 works, scheduled to be completed by May 2010, will be assessed by Sanral and the relevant contractors in February 2010.

Sanral says that, in order not to disrupt flow of traffic during the World Cup, a temporary suspension period has been programmed into the schedule from May 28, 2010, to July 14, 2010, with future phases of the project planned up to 2020.

Disruptions to traffic flow are expected during the construction period, although commitments have been made by Sanral and contractors to keep disruption to a minimum by ensuring that as many lanes as possible are left open, especially during peak hours.

“The long-term benefits will more than compensate for the temporary inconvenience of construction activities and we appeal to the public to exercise extreme caution on the entire network during construction,” says Sanral spokesperson Wendy Watson.