Columns 27.11.2013 12:00 am

Still no answer to e-tolling questions

FILE PICTURE: Motorists pass through a toll gantry. Picture: Michel Bega

FILE PICTURE: Motorists pass through a toll gantry. Picture: Michel Bega

It is hard to decide on what the most significant e-toll saga debate is – also that such a contentious system could be a reality by the time of our next edition.

There has of course been mountains of debate on the issue, none of which has come close to explaining why the system that is to be implemented is in fact the best one.

A democracy is not a democracy unless it has not just debate, but meaningful debate, argument that steers one inexorably towards the right solution. There are so many unanswered questions surrounding e-tolling that one cannot possibly say we have reached the end of the debate or arrived at the right solution.

So why the insistence on forcing a system upon a clearly outraged public? The public has not generally disputed the need for roads or its willingness to pay for them – it is largely the mechanism of payment that is in dispute.

etolls_countdown_icon06Kapsch TrafficCom is the Austrian company that effectively will be confiscating your hard-earned cash every time you drive beneath a gantry. Its share price surged on the news that e-tolls would be implemented on December 3, proving that there is significant profitability in the venture and that significant amounts of money will be leaving South Africa.

This makes the authorities’ intransigence all the more perplexing. The powers that be are prepared to do just about anything to make people pay. The most recent in a long list of draconian threats is that unpaid toll debts will be handed over to debt collectors within seven days. Although this is unlikely to be any more than another threat – the law doesn’t allow for a random approach to debts fortunately – it still makes one wonder at why a government would effectively resort to threatening its own citizens?

Parts of the contracts are blacked out for public consumption. Why? What is driving this secrecy? Ultimately this should be about providing roads, nothing more sinister. In a country with one of the highest road death tolls in the world we moot special courts for toll defaulters – absolutely bizarre.

In a country where a hit-and-run driver kills five people and it takes years to come to court we can nail someone who has not paid a few rand in a week. That makes no sense. Already motorists have been harassed by metro police around the e-toll issue and motorists are expecting this to become a lot worse.

We are directing resources, whose ultimate responsibility is to look after public safety, to enforce a debt incurred by someone else.

The argument underpinning much of this madness is that debt is incurred by the user, the motorist, and must be recovered on a “user pays” principle.

I am not sure what this conveniently applied principle really is though. When can it be invoked and when not? I am sure many taxpayers feel that Nkandla would be a great time to apply “user pay”.

At least there it is quite clear who a user is. In the case of toll roads though a taxi and its occupants are not users, but a private car pool is. It appears to be an unprincipled principle.

A sensible alternative to e-tolling is a fuel levy ring-fenced for roads. The authorities suggest this would be unfair on motorists in, say Cape Town. But e-tolls are proposed there already and it is unlikely to stop after that.

So what we will end up with is more and more e-tolls, countrywide, providing a private company with massive profit on the argument that it is more fair that everyone pays tolls than everyone paying a much cheaper-to-implement fuel levy.

It would seem that the real reason for e-tolling is hidden deep in the secrets at the heart of the deals that were struck before the pretence at consultation began. What else could explain the threats and intransigence? Why not just declare the roads national key points and get on with it?

I for one will not be playing tag until all the rules are explained.

 

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