01 July 2014
What GFIP phase II might mean
June was a bad public relations month for road agency SANRAL. The Advertising Standards Authority announced that no less than three complaints against SANRAL's advertising had been upheld and that the adverts should be withdrawn, and then there was a nasty tangle in the Western Cape over people living illegally on SANRAL land who were evicted in controversial circumstances.
And then SANRAL vehicles started to appear at roadblocks around Gauteng. This unleashed yet another wave of negative sentiment from motorists, angered over what they saw as heavy-handedness. We don't think the negative news will stop any time soon, because SANRAL's hand will surely be forced into prosecuting e-toll non-payers – it is the only avenue left to them, since the information released in answer to Parliamentary questions clearly shows that motorists are not paying. What hangs in the balance is whether even a successful prosecution will have the desired effect. Will it persuade enough additional motorists to pay? Or will it inflame negative sentiment further? The AA has long held that the e-tolling system was incorrectly planned and launched, and the widespread view is that it is not a system the public wants or supports. To proceed with prosecutions over this unpopular system could easily backfire and we feel that the correct way to handle the situation is to simply admit defeat and revert to more cost-effective and uncontroversial ways of funding roads. This decision should be taken now, because the original map of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project shows even more toll roads are planned. These are for GFIP Phase 2 and with the public's current mood over e-tolling, it's doubtful any new tolls will be received positively. Incoming Gauteng premier, David Makhura appeared to recognise this in his State of the Province speech in the last week of June. But if the 'review panel' he plans to set up to examine e-tolls doesn't finally take account of the wishes of Gauteng residents (and their overwhelming opposition to e-tolls), there will be bad news on the horizon.
For, if GFIP Phase 2 goes ahead as planned in its original format, it is likely the N14 will be tolled from Krugersdorp to its intersection with the N1 possibly all the way into Pretoria.. New-build toll highways are also planned, the PWV5 outer Johannesburg ring road and the PWV9 north-south corridor which will parallel the current M1 to its West. What's not clear is whether they will replace roads which currently exist on those alignments, namely Olifantsfontein Road in the case of the PWV5 and William Nicol Road in the case of the PWV9. If replacement is what is envisaged, not only will mobility within Gauteng be further restricted to toll roads, but existing alternatives which are used by tens of thousands of people on a daily basis will be removed.
Before all this happens, SANRAL will have to consult, but it's their version of consultation which has us worried. Only 27 responses were received by SANRAL in 2007 in respect of the original Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project, one of which was from the AA. This low response rate shows that the public didn't realise what was on the horizon, but SANRAL nonetheless bulldozed ahead. It was only in 2011, when the actual toll fees were announced, that a massive public outcry forced SANRAL to backtrack, and it was then made clear that consultation is not taken as valid if the public weren't clearly told what they were being asked to agree to. A 'steering committee' (consisting solely of people in government and SANRAL) announced reduced toll fees, and when that didn't calm the public temperament, a series of after-the-fact public consultation meetings were held at which the public again rejected e-tolling of Gauteng's highways. Over 12 000 public submissions were received when SANRAL proposed the e-tolling regulations – these submissions have not been released for public scrutiny, but we'd be prepared to wager they were largely opposed. This situation was a mirror image of SANRAL's shambolic 'consultation' process years earlier when it proclaimed the N4 to Witbank as a toll road. The process was later declared invalid in court, but SANRAL continues to be able to extract tolls from motorists travelling on the N4 due to a legal technicality involving traffic signs at the toll gates.
To date, SANRAL has only consulted to satisfy the letter of the law rather than to discover the wishes of the people and this was also evident in the interdict granted against them in the Cape Winelands toll project – the consultation was inadequate and SANRAL is now attempting to prevent the very documents which they say justify their case from being released. And we believe this is yet again going to be the pattern if SANRAL attempts to implement GFIP Phase II as a toll project. The consultation process will likely be perfunctory, the Minister of Transport will provide the rubber stamp, and the public will be up in arms at losing yet more of Gauteng's arterials to an expensive and unpopular system, especially since Gauteng's taxpayers already contribute more than half of the total personal income tax collected by SARS in South Africa
But we do believe there is a way to counter this scenario and that is, very simply, for each and every AA Member to object when the time comes. SANRAL can and did ignore 27 objectors initially. It also ignored 52 000 signatories to an AA petition objecting to the tolls handed to the Ministers of Finance and Transport in 2011. But if it ignores hundreds of thousands of objections from AA Members, we will have the final proof that government is committed to tolling at all costs despite its known inefficiencies versus, say, the fuel levy or general taxation. And at that point, the question will be: why?