Freeways still free in South Africa, for now

JOHANNESBURG -- The toll gantries loom large over the roads in Africa's busiest province. Years after construction, they do little more than bathe strips of road in black light.

JOHANNESBURG--The toll gantries loom large over the roads that wind around Africa's busiest province. The structures sit atop some of South Africa's most congested roads, ready to automatically collect fares from motorists that drive beneath. The potential funds are earmarked to improve some of South Africa's most heavily traveled highways. But years after construction, the platforms do little more than bathe strips of road in black light.

This month South Africa pushed back its plan to start charging drivers who commute around two of the nation's largest cities. The province of Gauteng is home to Johannesburg, South Africa's economic capital, and the country's administrative capital in Pretoria.

This latest in a series of delays is seen as a victory by the plan's many opponents. Large portions of the public and even significant blocks within the government voiced their opposition to the new tolls, saying that the system amounted to little more than a tax--one that would kill jobs and drive up prices in a nation unable to cope with either outcome. Some even called for organized protests against the tolls.

"[We] will be encouraging motorists to drive through the tolls without paying," Zwelinzima Vavi, the head of South Africa's trade unions, said in response to the planned tolls. "In this act of civil disobedience, we shall not present ourselves to the courts and will not pay fines imposed for merely using public roads that shall remain a public route."

The tolls are one of the few issues where South African businesses and labor seem to agree. The Democratic Alliance (DA), the country's main opposition party that's often pro-business, has also called for boycotts of the system if it goes online.

The DA's Neil Campbell echoed Vavi's call to avoid the tolls. "If we all stand together resolutely refusing to be part of this unjust toll system, it will fail," he said in an interview in the Sowetan. "[The toll collection company] and the justice system cannot cope with a boycott by 95% of highway users."

At this point it seems the only organization still firmly behind the new tolls is the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) itself.  Sanral says the tolls, which were slated to start in February, are needed to fund necessary improvements to roads and also to move people towards public transportation.

Opponents say that other funds could be used to upgrade South African roadways, including fencing off the money collected from a preexisting gas tax. They also argue that despite a new bus and train network in the province, the existing public transportation system in Gauteng is inadequate.

Sanral's plan calls for the erecting of forty-two gantries around 115 miles of road in Gauteng. South Africa has operated tolls on a number of highways for years, but the proposed Sanral plan would be the first to involve a gateless e-tag system that would work within metropolitan areas.

Prices on tag holders would range from $0.04 a mile for registered passenger cars with e-tags, up to $0.22 per mile for larger unregistered vehicles. Commuters without e-tags will have seven days to pay their tolls through the mail or face fines.

Both the DA and trade unions fear that if the tolls ever become operational, there will be a cumulative effect on prices throughout the country. Businesses that transport goods will pass on their costs to South African consumers, hurting many of the poorest in the country, people who are supposed to be insulated from the levy through public transport exemptions. Sanral hasn't said when it intends to start collecting tolls.

Photo: Axel Bührmann/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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