Roads - Funding and building

South Africa has no roads policy to speak of, and the result is that roads which enjoy higher priority  after the meagre roads budget has been exhausted are those on which tolling is feasible. The rest are left either to decay or stumble along on life support. The justification for tolling is that it is a fair and equitable 'user-pays' method of funding roads and that those who can't or won't pay tolls can use the alternatives (such as they are). But this is not really true, for tolling is a policy which creates a lopsided roads funding mechanism under which roads from which money can be directly extracted in tolls are pampered at the expense of other roads. An arterial road such as the N1 between Johannesburg and Pretoria, or between Paarl and Cape Town has an undoubted benefit. But to extract that benefit, motorists and the transport industry have to be able to access the artery safely via the second-tier provincial and urban trunk routes and the third-tier municipal roads. 

It is attractive to present the top-tier roads as being economically vital and therefore open to tolling as an exclusive funding method, but it is a fallacy. All roads are economically vital, and by focusing excessively on those roads from which a profit can be extracted, we accelerate the decay on second- and third-tier roads by not only under-funding them but by actively encouraging their use by toll avoiders. 

Have you ever wondered why it's only ever major roads which are tolled? It's a question worth asking, since the funding case for tolling second-tier roads indeed, all roads is no less valid than it is for top-tier arterials. What's different is the business case the country cannot possibly afford the tollgate infrastructure to make widespread tolling possible, so tolling any roads apart from major arterials becomes an economic dead-end. There is no difference in principle between a tollgate on your residential street and a tollgate on a major highway the problem is that the municipal tollgate would never recover its own installation costs, let alone the construction costs of the road over which it stands guard. Plus, it would likely not be accepted by the local residents, as we have seen with SANRAL's tolling of Gauteng's urban freeways which are the only practical routes for many daily commuters.

As a result, tolling is traditionally attempted only on roads where there collection costs can be recovered from a captive market, and the alleged economic benefits can be made to seem believable. Meanwhile, the economic benefits of upgrading other roads are ignored, and so are the negative consequences of a tolling-driven, artery-focused roads strategy. A high-profile truck crash in Pinetown in 2013 cost 22 lives and millions of Rands in damage. There were many factors at play in that crash, but what is not disputed is that the truck was using a peri-urban road unsuitable for heavy transport, but which truckers have openly admitted to using to avoid paying tolls on the N3. The collateral costs of this pattern of road usage have never been factored into the real cost of tolling. Nor have the costs of the accelerated decay of the alternative routes.

In 2010, the AA protested to the previous finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, that money allocated to metropolitan municipalities for roads had instead been used for other purposes. Gordhan's letter of reply stated that " would not be appropriate that metropolitan municipalities forfeit these funds if not used towards roads infrastructure...". He went on to say that National government had advised these municipalities to use these funds towards roads and transport "where possible." But the Auditor-General's reports on municipalities in the past few years have been damning, and the condition of many roads at municipal level shows that their management has  not heeded the ex-Minister's call.

Judging by the deteriorating condition of some provincial arterials, we believe that a similar state of affairs exists at provincial level, yet this very deterioration caused by under-funding, bad governance and mis-spending of the roads budget -  is seized upon by government as 'proof' that tolling is a valid funding option for the top-tier  routes through those provinces. The position is that the saving to the road user in time and money by using the tolled routes  in preference other roads justifies the tolls, but  this is flawed logic. In fact, the financial and road maintenance failures of provincial and municipal government have caused the condition of many secondary routes to become so poor that they are dangerous to use! These failures appear to be tolerable to government, since they play into the hands of SANRAL's tolling-driven agenda. Witness the Eastern Cape: SANRAL is pushing hard for the N2 Wild Coast toll project while government ignores the reality that many of the province's feeder routes are in a dire state.

The state's cost burden due to traffic crashes has spiralled and roads in poor condition play a major role in traffic crashes. Thesecosts are paid by taxpayers and are mostly avoidable.  The government itself has said that the total annual loss to the economy from crashes amounts to R306 Billion. If a mere 15% of that is related to road conditions, the country is throwing R45 Billion to the winds every year, more than enough to fund proper annual roads maintenance. So how do we fix this problem?

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