An open road toll (ORT) system, being imple- mented through the South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral), is to finance road improvements and expan-sions that are currently under way in Gauteng.

Speaking at a presentation to the South African Association of Consulting Engineers in Midrand, in May, Sanral northern regional manager Ismael Essa explained that the ‘user pay’ ORT system is not being implemented as a profit mak-ing exercise, but that the income accumulated from it would be ploughed back into future road improvements and expansions in the area, as well as maintenance of the infrastructure.

The system, initially to be implemented as part of the Gauteng Freeway Improve-ment Project (GFIP), will consist of 44 gantries posi-tioned at intervals of about 10,7 km over certain sections of the N1, the N3 and the N12.

To facilitate the application of such a system, compulsory ‘etags’ will be distributed to all commuters, free of charge. These compulsory, mutually exclusive electronic tags will be placed in every car and will identify it as it passes beneath the gantries. In the event that a vehicle is not fitted with a tag, cameras in the gantries will allow for identification by number plate. This will not only allow authorities to track the extent of toll-route usage by particular vehicles, but to monitor their mean speed as well.

The etags issued will be readable nationwide and will be available in prepaid form and postpaid, similar to the options marketed by cellphone companies.

Prepaid etags will be made available at petrol stations and the like, to be used by drivers of rental cars or simply by those wishing to stick to a strict budget.

The long-term plan is to improve and expand road net-works around the country through the implementation of the ORT system in other metropolitan areas, with Gau-teng being a current priority as the level of traffic congestion in the province is beginning to threaten economic develop-ment.

Essa revealed that freeway construction or improvements to existing freeways would cost anywhere between R25-million and R90-million a kilometre, running the numbers off the page when calculating the finances required to repair, refurbish and build more than 60 000 km of South African roads.

The fee rates are still to be finalised, but may be about 50c/km. At this rate, those making the 50-km trip between Pretoria and Johannesburg everyday on tolled routes will be footing a bill of about R25 every day. However, discounts of up to 40% will be afforded to most users, such as registered taxis, public transport vehicles and frequent users. The rates will be calculated using a com-plicated formula based on a benefit-to-user principle, the concept being that users will save the cost of fuel, time and wear and tear at a rate comparable with the toll cost.

Essa said that Sanral has estimated that the system will register an average of three-million transactions a day, although this figure is likely to be less if public transport systems share the load as hoped.

Sanral spokesperson Wendy Watson points out that the funds will be used exclusively on the GFIP project. “The funding is done on the basis of paying for the road over a period. The principle of the scheme is to provide sustainable funding for further development of the GFIP, the upgrading of existing roads and building of new routes when necessary, to ensure continued congestion-free transport over the long term.”

While Sanral favours the ORT system as a strategy to raise funds for road mainten-ance and refurbishment, the Automobile Association (AA) expects that the system will receive much criticism from consumers who are already feeling the adverse effects of high fuel prices.

AA spokesperson Gary Ronald conveys the AA’s proposition of other methods of fund-raising that might be more appropriate, whereby the cost burden is more widely spread to alleviate the pressure on individual commuters. “We have been pushing for a small levy on petrol, about 2c/ℓ, instead of the ORT, in order to fund transport infrastructure. But it appears now that this is not going to happen.”

A current levy of 127c/â„“ on petrol is charged in South Africa and goes directly into the National Revenue Fund, which government may dis-tribute however it sees fit and does not necessarily apply to matters of transport infra-structure.

If a fuel price levy for this purpose were to be imple-mented, says Watson, it might save metropolitan commuters on monthly toll fees but would place an unfair cost burden on vehicle users who do not contribute to the congestion or do not even live in the region where road improvements and upgrades are to take place, and thus will not experience any immediate, tangible benefits from the levy.

Compounded by the pres-sure of fuel price hikes, it is expected that commuters may be diverted away from the tolled freeways in an effort to avoid the associated costs. Concerns have been raised regarding the extent of the diverted traffic and the possibility of recreating con-gestion elsewhere.

Essa said that Sanral had modelled the potential diver-sion of traffic away from tolled routes. He dismissed uncertainty by explaining that Sanral’s prediction is that commuters will accept the toll-fee once they have weighed up the benefits of low-stress, vehicle-friendly, low-congestion ORT route travel as opposed to congested, com-plicated, alternative route scramble. The modelled com-muter reaction indicated that the overall effect of additional freeway capacity may actually attract traffic to the freeway network because of the limited comparative capacity of alternative routes.

After all, the purpose of the GFIP is to reduce congestion on the freeways through the promotion of ride-sharing and the use of public transport, as well as increasing road capacity and making use of intelligent transport systems.

While the ORT system will mean another three-digit bill for most private users at the end of every month, concerns have been raised over the effects of the ORT on freight users. Essa said that vehicles would be tolled according to their class, as currently practised at existing toll plazas, although the ORT gantries will employ an automatic sensor for that purpose. The result will be a higher fee for heavier vehicles, and since many busi-nesses are responsible for fleets of trucks that undergo many journeys each day, a concern voiced by Ronald is that the cost of the tolls may become prohibitive for some enter-prises.

He says the AA is con-cerned about the knock-on effects this might have if many heavy vehicles were forced to make consistent use of smaller, alternative roads that were not designed to withstand the road load, in terms of weight and numbers. These would include slower delivery times, increased congestion on alternative routes and increased noise pollution in some suburbs. Meanwhile, consistent use of toll routes could increase prices of transported goods.

Sanral has assured that it will have the full support of all the relevant elements of goverment to enforce the system. Failure to pay toll fees will be treated in the same manner as the failure to pay speeding fines. Roadblocks will occasionally be set up at on- and off-ramps, where police will be able to check users’ status. Should a user avoid using an etag or claim ignorance, the sensors and cameras installed in the gantries will be able to read and recognise individual number plates as a back-up method of identification. Essa said that police would also have the advantage of having relative access to the infor- mation upon request, allowing them to track vehicles that might be related to criminal activities.