Outa chief executive Wayne Duvenage says that his organisation is still waiting for the government to reveal the path forward with Gauteng’s controversial e-toll system, after Covid-19 and the nationwide lockdown put potential plans for the system on ice.
Duvenage told 702 that Outa is ready to see through its promise to take any legal challenge relating to the non-payment of toll fees to court, noting that some fleet owners are sitting with e-toll bills “in the several millions of rands”.
Motorists from around the province expressed concern around late bills being delivered to their homes, showing thousands of rands owed to the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral).
Some believe that it is their duty to pay the bills, as withholding payment will not resolve the debt issues attached to the scheme – while others say that they refuse to support a system that they believe it rooted in corruption, feeding the inflated contracts that have been signed around the tolls.
Duvenage said that the 20% of motorists who are currently paying their e-toll bills, are only covering the administration costs of the scheme.
The status of e-tolls is up in the air, with politicians dancing around the issue for months, following a decision by national government to address concerns ‘urgently’ at the start of the year.
In his 2019 mid-term budget statement finance minister Tito Mboweni said that the system would remain in place, adding later that it cannot be scrapped unless a replacement revenue source is found.
However, Gauteng premier David Makhura had made it clear that the province was moving to get rid of the system.
Between the finance ministry, provincial government and the Department of Transport, no government officials have given a clear path forward on the matter – despite promises of “imminent” decisions in February 2020, before the Covid crisis hit.
In its 2020 National Budget document Treasury said that the controversial tolling system was a risk to South Africa’s fiscal outlook.
“Clarity on government’s position on the user-pay principle as it relates to e-tolls (is still needed),” it said. “Declining e-toll revenue will have to be offset by other measures to repay South African National Roads Agency Limited debt. It could also affect funding for other investment projects.”
More recently, transport minister Fikile Mbalula noted that Sanral’s capacity to raise funds from the bond market has been adversely affected by the situation.
According to Duvenage, the only way Gauteng motorists can settle the matter is by abandoning payments entirely.
Refusing to pay e-tolls isn’t about being ‘anti-pay’, he said, but rather about being against funding irrational schemes that have zero prospects of ever working.
“The technology works in many parts of the world. The problem with South Africa is that there was never consultation with the public to get buy-in. You need at least 90% of users to pay for the system to work – something that is not happening.”
He said that schemes like e-tolls start failing when 20% stop paying, with no consequences. The 80% who do pay get angry, and then start falling off the scheme, refusing to subsidise those who are getting away with no repercussions.
With e-tolls, the maximum that ever paid was 40% of motorists – and currently only 20% pay. Sanral has failed to get buy-in from motorists through discounts, and has failed to intimidate motorists via summonses and threats of blacklisting.
Credit agencies made it clear in March 2019 that you cannot be blacklisted through non-payment of toll fees – and no court proceedings have been successfully launched against motorists.
Default judgements have been issued against motorists who have ignored summonses related to non-payment – and Outa has encouraged motorists to not ignore these, but rather approach it for assistance – however, Sanral suspended the issuing of summonses shortly after the credit bureaus stepped in.
Outa says that it is still waiting for its opportunity to test the legality of the entire e-toll system in court. Duvenage reiterated the organisation’s position: that the e-tolls were set up unlawfully, and its continued existence is irrational.
“The whole build process has corruption written all over it,” he said. “We spent R18 billion for something that should have cost R9 billion.”
He added that Sanral attempted to get the same scheme set up in the Western Cape, and every court threw it out as being unlawful.
“The only difference between the Western Cape and Gauteng is that (in Gauteng) they had already built the roads and signed all the contracts – the city (of Cape Town) caught it early enough, here in Gauteng they didn’t.”
The Outa head also noted that if the government had adopted its recommendations from the start, the roads and the debt tied to the system would have long been paid for.
Increasing the fuel levy by 10 cents in 2008, as Outa suggested, would have financed all the upgrades and paid off all the bonds by now, Duvenage said.
Since then, the government has increased the fuel levy by R2.40, and the e-toll problem persists, he said, noting further that Sanral’s own financial reports show that it expected 34% of its revenue to come from the system. That’s 34% from just 1% of their network.
“It was completely overcharged, and there’s no way 90% of road users would have bought into it,” he said.
“There’s so much going against urban tolling – the 20% that are paying aren’t doing anything; they’re just covering the administration costs. The quicker they pull the plug, the quicker we can put this thing to rest,” he said.