E-tolling a done deal, says Ndebele

26 April 2012 - 02:21 By THABO MOKONE and SIPHO MASOMBUKA
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Even as a high court battle to stop the Gauteng e-tolling system played out in Pretoria, the government was sticking to its guns, saying the implementation of the tolling project had reached the point of no return.

Presenting his R39-billion departmental budget for the next financial year in the National Assembly, Transport Minister S'bu Ndebele claimed that the Gauteng freeway improvement project had won the support of the majority of its users.

But opposition parties - the DA, COPE and the African Christian Democratic Party - slammed the looming system, some branding it the ''most expensive in the world".

Ndebele said a "huge majority" of the estimated 800000 regular users of Gauteng's freeways had given e-tolling the thumbs-up by buying e-tags.

"We are encouraged that 501245 e-tags have so far been sold and distributed to regular users of this road network. It's a clear indication that people are cooperating with us," he said.

A court battle waged by various lobby groups to interdict the implementation of the Gauteng tolling regime is scheduled to resume today after a judge ruled that the matter was urgent.

The tolling system is due to take effect at midnight on Monday.

Opposition MPs are not impressed by Ndebele's assertions.

The DA's Ian Ollis is leading the charge. "What we have been forced into with the e-tolls is the world's most expensive toll collection system,'' said Ollis. ''It will cost over R1-billion a year just to collect the tolls. That money will not go to upgrading highways but to the company that won the tender."

Ollis argued that it would cost only R4-million a year to administer a "small fuel levy" increase instead of the "expensive tolls".

The ACDP's Steve Swart weighed in, saying his party was opposed to the tolling of suburban roads because of rising fuel prices. He said the government should have thought about the high cost of collecting the tolls before it entered into the R20-billion agreement.

"This tolling project will impose an indirect cost on the economy via the associated strikes and will impose a direct cost by increasing transport costs," he said.

Ndebele hit back by insisting that there was "no way" the government would abandon e-tolling.

"Who is going to say which road toll should be stopped? Which project do you want stopped because you've got R20-billion to pay . the road is there, you can't roll it away like a carpet.

"It's your problem."

He argued that the tolls had to be enforced to enable the SA National Roads Agency (Sanral) to repay its loan of R20-billion, used to finance the improvement of highways around Pretoria and Johannesburg in the last two years.

He said failure to service the debt could cause it to skyrocket to R32-billion because of higher interest rates in the near future, and could compromise the credit rating of the government.

Trade union federation Cosatu, which said it would organise the "mother of all marches" against the e-tolls on Monday, yesterday postponed the march for two weeks until after a meeting with ANC leaders.

Cosatu's national spokesman, Patrick Craven, said the strike would now be in the second week of May. "This is to give time to assess the outcome of the meeting between Cosatu and the ANC leadership on April 26, the legal steps being taken by the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance against the roads agency, and any future legal action that Cosatu or others might take," he said.

"The strike embraces the campaigns against e-tolling, labour brokers and labour law amendments that could cripple trade union rights."

In the Pretoria High Court, opponents of the tolling system yesterday scored the first - and crucial - victory in the legal battle to derail the implementation of the controversial scheme.

The legal team representing the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance and others convinced Judge Bill Prinsloo that he should treat the case against tolling as urgent. Had the judge ruled that the matter was not urgent, the case would have been thrown out of court.

Prinsloo ruled that the applicants had made a valid case for urgency and that "the public interest and the ongoing interest from many quarters" caused it to be an urgent matter.

The alliance, supported by the SA Vehicle Renting and Leasing Association, the Quadpara Association and the SA National Consumers' Union, said its bid to stop the scheme was based on the contention that Sanral had failed to give proper notice of its intention to toll.

The applicants argued that the decision to toll was unreasonable, and that adequate enforcement of the system was "practically impossible".

Dismissing the argument of the respondents - which included Sanral, Ndebele, Gauteng MEC for roads and transport Ismail Vadi and the Treasury - that the alliance's application was four years late, the judge said it was apparent that the fate of the e-tolling system was uncertain until Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan's February budget speech, therefore it "would have been premature" for the applicants to lodge their application before then".

A submission by Ndebele and Vadi's lawyer, Vincent Maleka, that motorists would be refunded should the court rule in the alliance's favour would "be difficult for logistical reasons".

Sanral CEO Nazir Alli refused to comment on the new development, but alliance chairman Wayne Duvenage said the ruling was a swing in favour of those opposing e-tolling.

He said he was "quite optimistic" about the final outcome. - Additional reporting by Pertunia Ratsatsi

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