Could you afford to run your car if the petrol price doubled overnight? If you live in Gauteng, you ought to start asking yourself that question, thanks to what the South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral) calls the “user pays” system of funding roads. Toll roads, in other words. Once the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project is completed and equipped with its open-road tolling system in about 18 months, it will be virtually impossible to go anywhere on a freeway in Gauteng without paying a 50c per kilometre.

For regular freeway users of typical cars, this increase in running cost will be about the same as doubling the fuel price. For trucks it might equate to the fuel price tripling or quadrupling (“But won’t that wreck Gauteng’s economy?”).
Sanral claims that toll roads are fair and equitable because the people who use these roads pay the direct costs – “user pays”. This is entirely incorrect. The user already pays and has done so for years. If this were not the case, we wouldn’t have a sealed road network at all. We pay twice, in fact. Firstly, a portion of our income tax goes to the Department of Transport to fund road safety and maintenance of the road network. And secondly, a considerable proportion of the fuel price goes towards the same end.

With the exception of a couple of toll roads, this is how all roads were financed in the past. If you work out what the fiscal derives from the fuel levy alone, it’s a fantastic amount, what with all those billions of litres being sold every year. Certainly it’s enough to maintain and expand our road network. The problem is that the government has siphoned off those funds to pay for other things over the years, and bequeathed the roads problem to the next generation.

Every five years, the CSIR releases a road conditions report. Since 1995 it has shown an alarming decay of our road network. This has had a major knock-on effect for the country in terms of transport costs, fuel costs, productivity and accidents. The person who was chief director of roads in the mid-1990s, Nazir Alli didn’t do anything about this problem, nor did the SA Roads Board, of which he was a member. Instead, he was rewarded with the position of CEO of the newly-formed Sanral in the early 2000s.

With the maintenance backlog now exceeding R100 billion, which is 10 per cent of the total value of our road network, and the condition of the road network still in free-fall, we are currently an estimated five years from the majority of the network being in a “poor” condition. Sanral’s answer to this is to raise money for building new roads by tolling them, and justifying it with the “user pays” argument.

This argument is flawed because, when taken to its logical conclusion, it would imply that every single road in South Africa should be tolled to pay for its eventual replacement. And additionally,  the user already does pays. Twice. Now they expect us to pay three times. Sanral’s answer to objections is that they want us to use the Gautrain. That’s a valid argument if you live within walking distance of a Gautrain station and use the Gautrain’s routes. But how many do and will?  I’ve done my sums and worked out that it will still be cheaper for me to use my private car to drive from Johannesburg to Pretoria rather than using the Gautrain and its feeder buses and a taxi at both ends of my journey.

Besides, you won’t catch me on a bus or taxi until government fixes road worthiness and driving standards of these vehicles. Moreover, the Gautrain won’t run at night, meaning I have no option but to drive should I attend a function in Pretoria after 18:00 or so. And the Gautrain doesn’t help me at all if I’m going from Weltevreden Park to Midrand.

What about companies? Take, a grocery wholesaler, for instance – are they going to put all their fruit and veg on the Gautrain? Of course not. And since trucks will probably be tolled higher than cars (R1,50 per kilometre, I estimate), they’re going to suffer.

A truck or bakkie that travels 200 kilometres per day on Gauteng’s freeways might end up paying more in monthly tolls than the finance instalment on the vehicle. This is anti-competitive and will be untenable for smaller transport companies; many will go bankrupt. The larger ones will simply add the cost to their bill, which will in turn be passed on to us by way of more expensive onions, shoes or aspirin.

So the users won’t be actually be paying thrice over. They’ll be paying four times or more. This will do untold damage to the economic heartland of South Africa, as well as stifling entrepreneurship and making the poor poorer. It will also lead to an increase in accidents and urban congestion as people flee to the back routes.

Roads are not a profit centre, they are an economic enabler, like railways and telecoms. Their capital cost is an investment in GDP and employment, and the profit is returned in better standards of living and economic growth, resulting in higher taxation revenue for government.
Conclusion – Sanral beats Eskom.