The government’s suspension of the implementation of its bus rapid transit (BRT) system has given the City of Johannesburg a nearly R400-million headache.

The city’s roll-out of the BRT, initially intended for the Confederations Cup, has already been shelved pending negotiations with the taxi industry at national level. And unless the city meets the new roll-out date of September 1 it may be liable to pay R391-million to manufacturers of a number of buses pre-ordered for the start of the BRT.

A memorandum sent by the city to Transport Minister S’bu Ndebele asks, as a matter of “absolute urgency”, for clarity on the roll-out of the BRT.

“If the city does not start operating on [September 1] it will be liable to pay the bus manufacturers R391-million on August 30,” it states.

The buses were ordered by the city earlier this year when it still expected to roll out thefirst phase of the transport system to coincide with the Confederations Cup deadline.

The BRT system is intended to incorporate all taxi owners and operators working on the routes earmarked for the BRT. Negotiations with those affected began in 2006.

The plan is that taxi owners and operators become owners of the bus operating companies (BOCs) that will run the BRT and be contracted to the city. With the establishment of the first operating company the debt for the buses was intended to pass to the BOCs.

The city has been on track with the implementation of the BRT, including the negotiations with local taxi federations through the joint BRT taxi steering committee.

But plans were placed on hold after the South African National Taxi Council (Santaco) appealed to President Jacob Zuma to suspend the BRT. In a summit held a few days prior to the elections Santaco submitted a list of demands to government.

Zuma attended the summit and duly called for a suspension in the implementation, not only in Johannesburg, but other cities, including Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Bloemfontein.

Bob Stanway, BRT project manager for the City of Johannesburg, was unable to comment on the looming liability, but said that a report on the matter was due to be discussed in a mayoral council meeting on Monday.

With the postponement of BRT for the Confederations Cup observers are concerned that this poses serious reputational damage to the city and the country as it readies itself for the 2010 World Cup.

Stanway said that despite such damage the city needs to remain in line with the objectives of other spheres of government, namely provincial and national authorities.

It is part of South Africa’s 2010 bid compliance requirements hat host cities provide transport for the World Cup. According to Stanway BRT was intended to form only part of that transport plan and is not, in itself, a requirement for Fifa compliance.

“BRT is what was proposed by the cities as part of their transport plans, but forms part of South Africa’s broader national strategy to create integrated public transport systems,” he said.

At a press conference on Thursday it was announced that a park-and-ride system would replace the BRT for the Confed Cup. City council member Rehana Moosajee said the city is confident BRT will commence on September 1.