Sanral defends Gauteng highway fee structure

14 June 2011 - 23:47 By ANNA MAJAVU

The South African National Roads Agency has defended its plan to toll Gauteng highways, saying anything less than 66c/km would see the Transport Department's debt soar.

Officials told parliament's transport committee that at 66c/km, tolling would allow the department to repay R29-billion in loans by 2028. At the proposed lower rate of 40c/km, however, that debt would soar to R60-billion by 2024.

Transport Minister Sibusiso Ndebele put the new Gauteng tolls on ice three months ago after a public outcry and established the Gauteng Toll steering committee to review the fees.

Transport director-general George Mahlalela told The Times yesterday that the committee had finished its review. "We will be calling all the stakeholders next week to give them a report-back and after that we will be giving our report to the minister."

Mahlalela could not say when the decision on toll roads would be made public.

If Ndebele lets the toll roads go ahead, tolls will be introduced within three months, the agency told parliament's select committee on public services yesterday.

The agency's company secretary, Alice Mathew, said it had already borrowed R29-billion over the years to fund new roads, including the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project.

The interest on the loans was mounting, and Treasury had allocated 60% of what was needed to maintain national roads and build new ones to reduce traffic jams.

The agency's chief financial officer, Inge Mulder, said light vehicles would have to pay a toll of 66c/km for Sanral to wipe out its debt by 2028.

If Sanral introduced a cheaper toll of only 40c/km, its debt would rise to R60-billion by the end of 2024.

"People have short memories," said Mulder, complaining that all spheres of government had agreed to the Gauteng toll roads in 2005, and that the cabinet had approved a toll of 50c/km on the Gauteng roads in 2007 - when Thabo Mbeki was still president.

She said the agency had also come under pressure in 2008 to add two lanes to the N1 in both directions in time for the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

Mulder claimed that the new toll prices quoted by the media earlier this year were "totally inaccurate", and said that 77% of all light vehicle users would pay less than R500 a month in tolls on the Gauteng roads.

Motorists who bought electronic tags would pay 49.5c/km, and trucks with tags would pay R2.97/km.

She said taxis would get a 75% discount and so passengers travelling between Golden Highway and the Johannesburg city centre on the N1 or M1 would only pay an extra R2.86 per month. Taxi passengers travelling from the south of the city to Centurion would pay an extra R14.31 per month, Mulder said.

But MPs were highly sceptical. "You are saying good things but we don't see this on the ground," said the ANC's Mbuyiselo Jacobs, who accused the agency of sparking the uproar by failing to inform the public.

Committee chair Pat Sibande said toll roads had already been a burden for the public in Mpumalanga, where it cost more than R120 in tolls to drive from Komatipoort to Pretoria.

"If you compare this with the high rate of unemployment, you don't know how much damage it is going to cause to the innocent people," Sibande said.

DA MP Hermanus Groenewald questioned why the agency wanted to use the eNatis traffic information system on the new toll roads when this system had "never, ever worked very well".

Mathew and Mulder also came under fire from the committee for including in their presentation a photo of seven rural women carrying large rocks on their heads. "In that picture you see we leave the skills behind. We don't use big equipment. We teach people of the community how to do the work . they build another road. That is why you see the smiles on the faces there," said Mathew.

Annoyed ANC MP Malesane Themba told her: "This picture doesn't represent what you are telling us. It still shows women with things on their heads."

Sibande said it depicted poverty, not progress.

Mulder said borrowings would "hit R47-billion in the next seven years" and that the agency had to find ways to pay this back.