South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral) CEO Nazir Alli speaks enthusiastically about the company’s achievements on its 16 000km road network set to lighten travellers’ pockets but hopefully cut down on the time wasted in  traffic.

The project is expected to be complete by 2013.

The Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project marks the dawn of motorists hopefully getting to work faster… albeit a little poorer.

Alli says SA’s highways are getting intelligent. The laying of optic fibre along Gauteng’s national roads by Sanral will enable constant monitoring of traffic, road conditions and motorists by an Intelligent Transport System (ITS).

Dynamic signs alongside motorways will enable messages to be delivered to motorists, aiding the flow of traffic. An example envisaged by Alli is around the notorious Allandale turnoff at Midrand. If cameras notice our favourite “stop-start” conditions developing the signs can change the speed limit before the turnoff to 80km per hour, thus delaying the arrival of further congestion.

What of the inevitable accidents regularly clogging the Pretoria to Joburg commute? The ITS incorporates what Alli calls “an Incident Management System”. This means that there will be police, medical and authorised tow-truck services constantly patrolling the highway system.

Alli says the patrols will be a huge help, ensuring incident areas are quickly secured. The aim is to prevent secondary accidents and rapidly clear incidents. Thus, rapid response can reduce the severity of incidents while keeping Gauteng’s economic arteries clear.

Fears over “big brother” watching citizens have been anticipated by Alli. He insists monitoring will be to manage traffic and to ensure the free-flow tolls are charged correctly. The tolls will work by issuing every driver with a transmitter, which should be the size of a cheap cellphone.

Alli envisages the transmitter being either linked to ones credit card, bank account or a prepaid account. Convincing consumers this is a great idea may take some leg-work.

Gantries will span the highway approximately every 10km. As a driver passes beneath one the transmitter will identify the vehicle enabling the driver’s account to be charged. Simultaneously the driver’s licence plate will be photographed as a backup in case of a dispute over the toll.

This backup system is important to ensure lost or fraudulent transmitters, as well as any system glitches, don’t result in incorrect charges. The photos will ensure drivers without transmitters get charged, thus preventing a possible loophole.

Tolls on our highways appear inevitable. Will our hard-earned tolls at least get spent on the road we’re using?

Alli believes Sanral is characterised by excellent corporate governance with no maintenance backlog on its national roads. As evidence of corporate excellence he cites the recent loan to Sanral of €120m by the European Investment Bank (EIB) as well as Moody’s rating Aa2, which is two levels down from the highest rating achievable.

Alli stresses that there is no currency risk in the loan as the EIB loaned Sanral the money in rands, further displaying EIB’s confidence in the roads agency and South Africa.

The fact that Sanral has received a clean audit report further bolsters Alli’s assertion that its money is going where it should.

On the topic of money, Alli is concerned at media reports that Sanral is broke, requiring a cash injection of R31.9bn from government. He says “we’re not bankrupt in any form, [we’re] not being capitalised.” The R31.9bn turns out to be a government guarantee for a new issue of Sanral debt. The reasoning behind this is that it lowers the cost of the debt as investors have greater confidence in government backed debt.

As much as Sanral is trying to ensure a smooth motoring experience in future, motorists can’t help but notice the delay roadworks have on their daily commute. With the transportation needs of 2010 looming, Alli says that all major roadworks will cease during the tournament. This was a clause in the project contracts.

Alli says “[we] recognised a number of years ago that we can’t build our way out of congestion”, hopefully Sanral’s plans to improve the efficiency of SA’s current and future infrastructure will bear the required fruit.