For whom are e-tolls?

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E-TOLLS in Gauteng, South Africa, are starting to take their toll; not only on road users, but also on those who implemented the system last year.

A toll road is essentially a public road on which users are charged a fee for using the road.

The toll fee is meant to recuperate the cost of road construction or road upgrades or to meet general road maintenance.

Anyone who has driven over a potholed road would appreciate the importance of road maintenance.

Some potholed roads are not only hazardous to drivers but to the cars that traverse them. Some hole are as wide as gulleys and threaten to swallow the entire vehicle.

In some areas it’s actually safer to drive on the curb of the road than on what’s actually left of the tar.

As a driver, I have no qualms about paying tolls for keeping roads in pristine shape. However, I would have issues paying tolls for sub-standard road networks.

Driving from Bulawayo to Plumtree over the holidays I was impressed by the state of the road and it was a pleasure to pay the toll.
My desire is to see the same standard of road network rolled out across the country, especially in urban areas.

Old systems of tolling normally utilise booths or plazas where you drive up and physically pay the cashier the required amount.

However, the drawbacks of this system are that it can cause delays and congestions on highways when people travel especially over busy holiday weekends.

However, with the introduction of electronic tolling, cars are installed with a transponder or an e-tag and this enables drivers to pass under a toll plaza or gantry without stopping.

The toll amount is automatically deducted from the transponder which corresponds with the vehicle registration number.

Even in the absence of an e-tag the vehicle registration number can be picked up and invoiced with a tolling bill.

The cost of the toll is determined by the distance travelled over the highway. E-tolls were introduced in Gauteng amidst a lot of pomp and protest with 49 gantries installed all over Gauteng roads.

It was implemented to cover the R20 billion cost of highway upgrades instituted by the South African National Road Agency). E-tag holders are offered discounts which essentially can amount to a monthly bill of R400-R800 depending on the usage.

A lot of the opposition towards tolls has arisen for several reasons.

First public protest is against the secrecy surrounding the information on costs and the terms of the controversial e-toll contract that was awarded to a foreign country.

Secondly in countries where urban tolling is introduced, the public has alternative choices in other modes of transport they can use like buses, subways etc.

Even though Gauteng now has the luxury of the Gautrain, it only offers two lines and many others in the province are not able to access it.

The bus rapid transit system is not far reaching and the public transport system of buses and taxes come with their own operational headaches.

With people already paying R14 for a litre of fuel, the additional cost of the e-toll is an extra burden to an already struggling consumer.

Furthermore the non-operational railway network means more freight is transported by road and essentially the additional cost of transport is borne by higher food prices for consumers.

The Opposition for Urban Tolling Alliance reports that 71% of Gauteng motorists remain untagged.

This is an illustration of the outward defiance of many motorists who claim they would rather be jailed than succumb to the e-tolling system.

In monetary terms this translates to R543 million worth of unpaid invoices. Only 9% of those tolled have paid their bills.

Enforcement will clearly become a problem as current licensing legislation does not prohibit a driver from renewing their vehicle licences because of unpaid e-toll bills.

The system has also been dogged by teething problems with erroneous invoices being sent to users as was the case of a tractor owner in Cape Town who has not set foot in Gauteng in 20 years, but getting billed!

Not to be outdone, cable thieves have pounced on the gantries and now the experience of being illuminated by purple lights as one drives under the gantries has been extinguished.

It makes one wonder whether this system will have longevity or will be snuffed out by the continued opposition and operational inefficiencies.

 Sue Nyathi is the author of the novel The Polygamist. You can follow her on Twitter
@SueNyathi