The country's discourse on roads development has been dominated by a single issue over the past five years – tolling. But where is the holistic plan for roads development? Why don't we have one? What are the factors that could influence it? How could it work? And what would it cost. These are questions the AA will explore in a three-part series starting this month.
Road use patterns have evolved in an unusual way over the past two decades in South Africa. We believe the main cause has been the decline of the country's railways, coupled with the rise of smaller and informal businesses which do not operate on a large enough scale to need rail transport. South Africa's traditional industrial manufacturing locations were often built side-by-side with railways. A dense network of rail spurs running right up to the factory door made it possible for bulk manufacturers to shift their goods cheaply and effectively. But with the decline in maintenance of both the permanent ways and railway rolling stock, and the gradual withdrawal of Spoornet from all but major rail routes, much of this valuable infrastructure has fallen into disuse. The arteries of the rail system remain, but its capillaries no longer function.
Business turned to road freight to take up the capacity previously provided by rail. The pattern of heavy road transport providing short-duration breakbulk trips changed – instead, the whole trip was, in many cases, made by road. Along with this, the increased use of containerisation created flexibility and allowed continued economic expansion, but also entrenched the dominance of road haulage over rail. But on long distances, rail is cheaper, so the increased used of road transport brought an unavoidable cost increase, and probably substantial vehicle emissions increases as well. More heavy vehicles were required, and more competent drivers too. Our roads, never engineered for the kind of traffic volumes which high density road haulage requires, deteriorated at an ever-increasing rate. The traffic authorities, understaffed since the 1970s, were even more hard-pressed to manage the influx of heavy vehicles, and oversight of the heavy transport industry declined, almost to vanishing point. The number of weighbridges countrywide is not adequate to police loading regulations, and traffic officers are in many cases not adequately trained to identify maintenance or safety defects on heavy vehicles.
The formalised driver training programmes offered via the state to create competent drivers of large vehicles were curtailed at a time when more drivers than ever were needed. Higher traffic densities, lower driving standards, widespread overloading and deteriorating roads were certainly key factors which caused South Africa's road safety record to slide rapidly in the years leading up to the turn of the millennium and beyond.
The hammering dished out to our roads could not be sustained. The N3 corridor between Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal was one of the first to crumble, and when it was rebuilt starting in the late 1990s, tolling was chosen as the de facto funding solution without considering any of the consequences. Government then – as now – regards the road user as a separate class of individual to the taxpayer. It claimed (and claims) that the taxpayer could not fund roads, and the money had to come from someone else. The solution was to increase the use of tolling. But the people who pay tolls are not "someone else". They are, by-and-large, the same people who pay tax, and the AA is not in agreement with the national Treasury's position that these individuals can afford a substantial tolling bill, but not a slight increase in taxation.
One of the consequences which came with the tolling of major arterials was that heavy vehicles began to use secondary roads to avoid tolls. Now these roads too were subjected to traffic loads for which they were never designed, leading to rapid deterioration in both road quality and safety. Even the roads which didn't suffer from the increased 'toll avoidance' traffic fell victim. Mpumalanga, for instance, became a literal wasteland of potholed and rutted secondary routes which were pounded to dust by trucks hauling coal which would have been more effectively moved by train. The AA's report on road conditions and funding in 2008 estimated that the maintenance backlog exceeded R140 Billion at that stage. In the absence of a more updated study, that figure continues to be quoted by both government and the private sector, but the backlog has not been addressed in the past six years and the unintended consequences of the booming road transport sector have continued to exact massive penalties in safety and road conditions. We would not be surprised if the true value of the backlog exceeded R200 Billion at present.
So the problems remain: the railways are unlikely to return to a meaningful role in bulk transport within the forseeable future, existing roads must be maintained and upgraded, and new roads must be built. To address these new problems, we need money and road building capacity.