R500m e-toll pothole

03 April 2014 - 02:01 By Penwell Dlamini
E-toll gantry. File photo.
E-toll gantry. File photo.

The South African National Roads Agency could be facing "real" cash-flow problems after recovering less than a 10th of more than R500-million in overdue e-toll charges from motorists.

Just four months after the controversial tolling system came into operation on Gauteng highways, experts have warned that the parastatal might not be able to service its R40-billion debt and might have to ask the national Treasury for a bailout.

This could affect the agency's credit rating, they say. However, Sanral insists it is satified with the level of payment so far.

Transport Minister Dipuo Peters yesterday revealed that invoices for more than R543-million had been transferred to the violations processing centre, but that only 9.21% - less than R50-million - of the total value of transactions had been recovered.

Peters, responding to a parliamentary question, disclosed that, by March 1, it had cost more than R50-million just to collect debt from motorists in Gauteng. This included more than R32.8-million for postage and printing invoices and the cost of the actual collection process - R21.9-million.

Sanral's debt has soared to R40-billion, from R6.2-billion in 2007.

These revelations, said Dawie Roodt, an economist at Efficient Group, sounded alarm bells for the agency: "My impression here is that Sanral will not be in a position to service its current expenditure in the way it expected. That includes interest on debt as well as repayment.

Roodt warned that Sanral could be getting into "real" cash-flow problems.

"It may have to borrow the money in the market or stop everybody and say, 'You either pay me or else.' . The other option is that it will go to the finance minister for a bailout."

The spokesman for the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance, John Clarke, said it believed Sanral was "in dire crisis".

"It does not have that sort of money to enable it to service its debt . It will have to find the money elsewhere. Sanral is in dire crisis and it is not putting only itself in a crisis but the country. I fear that we may end up a failed state like Greece [and] we cannot pay our debt."

Clarke said Sanral might have to ask the Treasury to bail it out.

But the Treasury has previously said it was unlikely to grant such financial assistance again.

In 2012 it provided the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project with a R5.75-billion bailout despite a public outcry.

Clarke said the figures released by Peters showed that Sanral was not getting enough revenue to recover the cost of improving Gauteng highways.

"Sanral has failed. It has basically squeezed itself by using intimidating bully-boy tactics to try to force people to buy e-tags ." he said.

DA MP Ian Ollis said the party still held the view that "e-tolling will be disastrous to the economy and people of Gauteng".

Sanral's billing system has been beset by problems, including failure to provide invoices on time, billing of people who do not own cars and an increase in the displaying of cloned number plates.

Roodt said the high number of outstanding fees could also be indicative of motorists being under financial strain.

"Clearly what is happening here is that the public is not agreeing with what the government has legislated. People could be battling or do not want to follow the government's instructions," he said.

In his reply about Sanral's financial position, spokesman Vusi Mona said: ''Sanral is satisfied with both registrations and payments made by non-registered users. We have always trusted that the public will do the right thing and pay. This high level of compliance has also meant that we are on track to meet our debt obligations".

Last month, Sanral chief financial officer Inge Mulder told Business Day she was confident that cash generated through e-tolling would be sufficient to give investors confidence to begin buying Sanral bonds, which were issued yesterday.

Mulder said she expected rating agency Moody's to review Sanral's downgrade in light of its proven e-toll collection ability.

Despite the money owed by motorists, Sanral had collected R250.8-million and registered more than 1.2million users as at February 28.