South African Minister of Transport Jeff Radebe, on Tuesday celebrated the start of construction of the recently awarded R11,5-billion contracts for the first phase of South African National Roads Agency Limited’s (Sanral’s) Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP), by participating in a sod-turning ceremony in Johannesburg.

Sanral had, in May, awarded seven contracts to five joint-venture firms that would upgrade a number of highways around Gauteng to add additional lanes and improve interchanges.

“I have said on numerous occasions that roads are the veins and arteries of our country’s economy. The congestion on the freeways around Gauteng are inhibiting economic growth and development, and this heart bypass for Gauteng will enable the economic hub of the sub-continent to grow without the hindrance of poor traffic management,” commented Radebe.

He added that the GFIP would change the face of roads, not only in Gauteng, but also in the whole of South Africa. He said that the country’s road infrastructure had suffered a lot owing to underinvestment and that government had identified road infrastructure as one of its major priorities.

Radebe said Cabinet had subsequently approved a document called the Road Infrastructure Framework for South Africa, which was a blueprint for the planning, development and maintenance of the country’s road network.

Government had also set aside R70-billion for the road infrastructure across all spheres of government. The R11,5-billion for the first phase of the GFIP formed part of this.

Sanral said that the GFIP would contribute R14,2-billion to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2008, and R15,3-billion in 2009, while it would also contribute R6,3-billion to the Gauteng Gross Geographic Product for 2008, and R6,7-billion in 2009.

Further, the project would create about 29 300 direct employment opportunities and 138 900 indirect employment opportunities, mostly in the low-income brackets, during the construction period.

After construction, the project would create about 1 800 direct and 9 200 indirect job opportunities.

Radebe added that a skills transfer would take place during the construction phase, which would ensure that construction workers gained more experience and learned more about their business, as well as providing them with more opportunities in the work force after the construction had been completed.

He said that 41% of the total contract expenditure for the first phase of the GFIP, or R3,7-billion, would benefit small, medium-sized and micro enterprises and black economic-empowerment firms.

The construction of the first phase of the project was expected to be substantially complete by May 2010, before the start of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Sanral CEO Nazir Alli commented that Sanral was confident the contracting firms would deliver on time.

Meanwhile, at the end of 2010, these upgraded roads would be tolled, with a method called Open Road Tolling. High Occupancy Vehicle lanes would also be used to encourage people to make use of public transport or share transport.

“South Africans still live by the concept of one person, one vehicle and we can no longer afford to do that. We must encourage a change in mindset and use public transport or share vehicles,” Radebe said.