More confusion over e-tolls

 ·5 Jan 2023

Civil action group Outa says that the Gauteng and national government need to clear up exactly what is happening with road agency Sanral’s e-toll debt, and explain why Gauteng is paying R12 billion towards it.

The group was responding to statements from Gauteng premier Panyaza Lesufi this week, where he was talking about the planned scrapping of e-tolls and the various factors at play around it.

The Gauteng government missed a 31 December deadline to scrap the system, with Lesufi explaining that the province and national government needed to iron out a few issues, including what will happen with existing e-toll bills and the motorists who have been paying their e-tolls diligently over the years.

It has been decided that almost R7 billion in paid e-toll bills will be refunded, the premier said, with the question now being exactly how this will be done.

Lesufi also said that the province would have to come up with a way to pay the 30% portion of Sanral’s e-toll debt, as negotiated with National Treasury. This, he said, would see wide consultation with stakeholders in the province – but residents and motorists could see a tax hike, higher fuel prices or more tolls to raise revenue.

According to Outa, this is a particular point of concern as there are still major questions over how much, exactly, the province should be paying.

“The more comments we hear by the various authorities, the more confusing matters become,” said Wayne Duvenage, Outa’s CEO.

Why is the debt bill so high?

“Why is the Gauteng provincial government being asked to settle any debt that the national authorities – National Treasury, the Department of Transport and Sanral – entered into in 2008 when the e-toll scheme was approved,” Duvenage asked.

“The Gauteng freeway infrastructure upgrade took place on national roads managed by Sanral, reporting to the national Department of Transport, and it was the national Ministry of Finance which approved the government guarantees to back the bonds taken up by Sanral, of which only R21 billion pertained to the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP),” he said.

Even if Gauteng has been convinced to contribute toward 30% of the bonds, it should only be to cover 30% of the R21 billion borrowed for the GFIP ie R6.3 billion, not of the R43 billion Treasury says the GFIP debt is now, Duvenage said.

“In addition, between 2011/12 and March 2022, National Treasury has bailed Sanral out to the tune of R22.4 billion – the total after VAT was deducted, and excluding the grants in MTBPS 2022 – specifically for the GFIP debt, which is well above the capital portion of the project’s capital cost.

“The interest on the GFIP bonds debt amounts to no more than R17 billion since 2008. ”

Duveange said that the province should demand clarity on what exactly it is expected to contribute 30% toward, and how the figure is calculated.

“On top of this, the Gauteng government should be asking why Sanral paid the excessive cost of R17.9 billion for the GFIP upgrade – before the e-toll gantries added another R3 billion infrastructure costs,” he said.

Outa estimates that the GFIP project should have cost no more than R9 billion.

“Sanral’s inability to defy the construction industry corruption at the time allowed the costs to escalate to R17.9 billion by the time the project was completed in 2011. Gauteng should not be footing the bill for Sanral’s gross inefficiencies and incompetence.”

Outa is also taking exception to the apparent plan to raise funds to pay the debt by making things more expensive for motorists and businesses in the province. It said that it would engage the matter during consultations.

However, despite the confusion and looming issues, the civil action group said the decision to refund e-toll bills paid up was a positive one, if a bit misplaced.

“What remains confusing, however, is that these comments are being made by the Premier of Gauteng, when in fact it was Sanral who billed the motorists and collected the fees. This matter requires a comprehensive explanation from Sanral on what refunds will be made and how,” Duvenage said.

Lesufi is expected to give more clarity on the shutting down of e-tolls during his state of the province address in the coming weeks.

Read: E-toll payments will be refunded: Lesufi

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