The Ministerial Task Team deliberating on the future of e-tolls in Gauteng must consider from the outset that the current model of funding for the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP) has failed – and is doomed to remain a failure if pursued.
So says the Automobile Association (AA) in a statement in which it points to research from its newly-released Road Funding Report where it is made clear that Gauteng road users have no intention of ever paying within the current framework. “Our research indicates people will not pay under the current conditions,” says the AA.
The statement comes on the heels of the budget vote presented in Parliament earlier this month by the Minister of Transport, Fikile Mbalula, in which he stated that a “task team” had been established to find a solution to the demand to scrap e-tolls in Gauteng. The team is made up of the Department of Transport, SANRAL, the Gauteng Province and National Treasury whose task it is to look incisively at all relevant issues and make firm recommendations.
“The process of engagement is still on-going and various options towards the resolution of this challenge are being processed by the team,” said the Minister, adding that the options being considered include feasibility of mechanisms through which the debt incurred in the construction of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP) can be paid.
“The team is working tirelessly to ensure that a final report on this matter is tabled before the President by the end of August 2019. We are mindful of the demand to scrap e-tolls and are therefore looking at solutions that will balance this demand with the need for the country to honour its obligations insofar as the e-tolls debt is concerned. This is the reality we must all be alive to,” the Minister said in his speech.
The AA, pointing to its research, says that debt is not a factor in people’s decisions. “Most users are not paying because of a principled position taken years ago and no amount of cajoling or enticement will change their minds,” it says.
Given the findings from the Report, the Association says the only fair and sensible approach going forward is the immediate suspension of e-tolling in Gauteng and the reimbursement of consumers who have paid e-tolls since 2013.
The AA says it is again calling for the ring-fencing of an e-toll levy linked to the General Fuel Levy (GFL) – as it did when the funding for the GFIP was first mooted – as the only equitable and viable means of funding.
“Compliance remains low and is dropping because of a number of factors. These include the confusion resulting from different messages from provincial and national government, and the announcement in March that historic debt will not be pursued. In this environment, compliance rates are expected to significantly taper off further, leaving only a fraction who still pay,” the AA notes.
The AA Road Funding Report has considered a number of different road funding models and reviewed road funding models in Africa and other countries internationally. “Our research also carefully considered the best options available for the GFIP funding and we always returned to the ring-fencing of a specific amount linked to the GFL,” the AA says.
The Association further notes that despite claims to the contrary, the ring-fencing can be accommodated on a provincial basis instead of nationally so as to ensure only residents of Gauteng who benefit from the GFIP are taxed in this manner. It adds that despite objections to this ring-fencing, it remains the easiest, most equitable and least administratively difficult tax to collect.
“Ring-fencing alleviates many of the problems currently experienced and will immediately have an impact on the funding of the GFIP. Given the huge resistance to e-tolls in Gauteng, finding a workable and sustainable solution should be everyone’s goal. This is, and always has been, that solution; it is one we have been advocating since e-tolls was first on the table,” notes the AA.
Apart from this, the AA says SANRAL’s negative approach to public interaction has also led many motorists to have a jaundiced view of the agency which continues to perpetuate a user-pays narrative even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the current system will neither be accepted, nor adhered to, by those who must ultimately pay the bills.
“There is not now, nor will there ever be, a collection system based on the gantries and Electronic Toll Collection’s (proven inefficient) model of collection that will work. The Departments of Transport and National Treasury, SANRAL, and ETC need to acknowledge this. Ring-fencing is the only workable solution and any attempts to dissuade this approach are, quite frankly, exacerbating an already horrendous situation while ignoring an achievable outcome,” says the AA.
Reimburse those who have paid
In addition to ring-fencing, the AA says users who have paid tolls to date should be reimbursed to ensure equity going forward. This, the Association notes, is also critical to achieving consensus among motorists that the ring-fencing model is fair.
“We stress, however, that the ring-fencing model is intended to deal directly with the funding of GFIP going forward and does not deal with the issue of the approximately R90-billion debt racked up so far by this appalling system, which is cumbersome and antiquated,” the AA says.
The AA reckons that given the hostility towards e-tolling in Gauteng, the pushback from consumers will continue if the current model is pursued.
“Compliance rates are too low to make this system viable and no attempts – either financial or legal – are going to change that. Consumers are already stretched to their financial limits and they have dug their heels in on this issue. Attempts to force these payments out of them will not change their minds. It will, in fact, only further entrench their already hard-line approach, causing even more debt. All of this while a perfectly reasonable, immediate and viable solution is already within government’s ambit,” the AA concludes.