Everyone is angry about e-tolls – but the fuel levy is worse: expert

The debate and upheaval around Gauteng’s e-tolling system has created a culture of non-compliance, and has distracted from the very real need for ways to fund vital infrastructure in South Africa, says president of the South African Road Federation (SARF), Saied Solomons.

According to Solomons, there is no way to get around the fact that the country’s roads need to be upgraded and maintained, as they are a vital part of a country’s economic development.

In South Africa, and around the world, citizens’ taxes pay for this work – but other methods are also used, such as tolling, fuel levies and other charges.

As the country’s economic hub, Gauteng’s roads are arguably the most important to help boost the economy. However, despite the upgrades done in 2010 as part of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project, new projects have stalled, and maintenance is not being done.

The roads are getting more congested – and much of the benefit seen over the past few years is being undone. If you listen to Sanral and toll collection company ETC, this cause is simple: people are not paying their e-tolls.

E-tolling has drawn the ire of Gauteng’s road users since its implementation in 2013, with many responding to the system by not paying their fees.

However, Solomons said that while e-tolling is bearing the brunt of motorists’ rage, the oft-touted alternative – the fuel levy – is a much more unjust system, that may no longer be viable.

“E-tolls are just one means of collecting income from road users. The fuel levy is another,” he said. “Those who are up in arms about e-tolls should rather consider lobbying for an alternative to the fuel levy. If any road tax is not fair or equitable it is the fuel levy.”

According to Solomons, with the fuel levy, the poor pay the same rate of tax as the rich – and those who can afford newer more fuel-efficient vehicles are paying less than poorer people driving older cars for the same distance travelled.

“The fuel levy is also not transparent – the rate per litre can be established, but calculating trip cost is not easy. It cannot be used as a tool to manage congestion during peak periods and it does not consider road damage caused by the mass of the vehicle.

“With the expected increase in electric vehicles in the future, the fuel levy is also not sustainable,” he said.

He also said that many people are paying more road-use tax with the fuel levy than what their comparative fair share of road use-demands – and they are also paying in personal time due to congestion and increased vehicle operating costs.

“Compared to international standards, the demands on our roads are too high versus the available funding for maintenance and expansion of the network,” he said.

Solomons said that South Africa needs a completely new approach to road funding based on paying per the mass of the vehicle and distance travelled.

“This should involve a tariff setting mechanism that influences behaviour and that helps manage road capacity. Public sentiment will be far easier to manage if we have a road use charging system that is cost-effective, efficient, sustainable, equitable, transparent and well administered.

“After all, the user-pay principle is already part of our everyday lives – we pay for lights, water, parking, etc,” he said.

“Charging for road use needs to be very clear so that all sectors of society, including ordinary South Africans, know that government’s investment and road infrastructure spending is in their interests.”

Read: Here’s what will happen to our roads if we don’t pay e-tolls

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Everyone is angry about e-tolls – but the fuel levy is worse: expert