Opinionista Wayne Duvenage 12 August 2013

e-Tolls: Between a rock and a hard place

‘Catch 22’; ‘between a rock and a hard place’; ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t’. Clichés abound when it comes to the situation facing the authorities on e-tolls. Government simply cannot continue to kick the e-toll can down the road for much longer. A decision needs to be made, sooner rather than later.

Policies in limbo develop when those in positions of power, who have chosen to go one way, come up against complex forces pulling in the opposite direction. The slower the decision to implement the policy, the stronger the opposing forces become. Complexity and practicality rely on administrative competence and when irrational and impractical policies are forced upon society, they become unmanageable and unenforceable. This is what we are currently witnessing with e-tolling.

The Administrative Adjudication of Road Traffic Offences (AARTO – now seven years behind launch), Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC), Road Traffic Infringements Agency (RTIA) and Taxi Recapitalisation Program are all examples of policy making, administration and enforcement in limbo, resulting in a failed road safety programme with declining controls and mismanagement of unruly and unlawful road-user behavior.

A similar policy in limbo fate has befallen the e-toll decision, which has its architects, Sanral’s leadership, bouncing from pillar to post as they seek ways of cajoling society into acceptance whilst awaiting government’s firing of the starting gun, some two and a half years after the initial launch date of April 2011.

Let’s face it, Sanral’s dire financial predicament is its own doing. They have blamed their e-toll launch delay on mass opposition and court challenges, without considering that their own actions and behavior may have something to do with society’s resentment and the legal challenges they face. Sanral has simply blundered on, seemingly oblivious to the fact that public acceptance and a robust regulatory and enforcement framework are critical elements integral to the state of readiness and practical implementation of projects of this nature.

Today, Sanral, which was once a state-owned entity of high brand value and integrity, has minimal cash reserves and no attraction for the bonds it issues, all because the organisation can’t get the Gauteng e-toll project rolling. Yet all the regulatory hurdles have been forced through the various governing structures, apart from the final signature from the president. And in the background, Sanral’s PR propaganda machine continues to churn out, at significant cost, claims of high volumes of tags being sold, how low the costs of tolls will be and how ready they are to launch. So what are they waiting for? Why has the final signature not been penned?

It seems there is not one reason, but a combination of three factors giving rise to this launch-limbo:

  • The court case. The appeal against the high court judgment, which ruled in favour of e-tolls in December 2102, is now set for hearing in the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) on 25 and 26 September 2013. Should the SCA rule in OUTA’s favour, the current e-toll plan will be all but dead, despite the fact that government can appeal this ruling to the Constitutional Court and continue with the e-toll launch. The fact that Sanral has been given permission to launch its e-toll plan since 17 September 2012, raises the questions of why this has not been yet – and how dire is its financial situation, really?
  • The 2014 elections. This is an even bigger conundrum in the decision to toll. The Gauteng constituency of the ANC has made no secret of the fact the e-toll debacle is a thorn in its side. All indications point to this issue being a significant vote swinger in 2014. Does the ANC risk forcing this highly and widely unpopular decision into being, at the potential cost of thousands of votes, and possibly even risk losing control of the country’s economic powerhouse?
  • Failure of the system as a result of (a) it being too complex to implement and administer and (b) high levels of non-compliance by a frustrated society. By now the authorities are fast realising that court challenge and election forces aside, system failure has been the elephant in the room all along. That old adage ‘laws and regulations are only as good as they are governable’ (i.e. administered and enforceable) is dawning on them.

E-tolls could very easily suffer the same fate as the low traffic fine payment ratio that exists (below 25% in Gauteng). Even worse for Sanral is the fact that whereas local government traffic fine inefficiencies are partially overcome by simply installing more traffic violation cameras around the city, e-tolling can’t resort to this tactic. To succeed, the e-toll process must have the confidence of extremely high compliance and successful toll collection levels (around 85 to 95%), along with an efficient enforcement processes.

Sanral’s vacillating began in 2011, when large-scale public objections arose at the sight of gantry erections. By early 2011, the complexities of the process began to dawn on Sanral, along with a realisation that the e-toll system, which was still being tested, was not ready to go. This triggered the start-stop series of missed launch dates throughout the year, interspersed with Steering Committees and tardy public-engagement facades.

Threats of taxi blockades resulted in a knee-jerk exemption for this sector of road users. When Sanral realised the general public’s call to boycott the ‘get tagged’ offer in favour of a ‘send-the-bill-in-the-post’ option, Sanral’s arrogant, autocratic style kicked in again. They decided to revise the tariff structure with a punishing six-times the e-tag rate for drivers who choose not to e-tag, knowing that too many e-tag abstainers would bring the system down. Even this threat hasn’t worked. The public saw straight through the plan and the crescendo of rejection grew even louder, with more sectors of society questioning and opposing the system.

Why would society behave in this way? After all, we are an honest, law-abiding nation that complies in orderly fashion to government policy. Well, broadly speaking we are, if you exclude fraudsters, thieves, thugs, murderers, rapists and corrupt individuals who cause some degree of discomfort and problems for the nation. By far the vast majority of people are good, compliant citizens. Contrary to the glib quote from Sanral and some politicians, “If the public had their way, they wouldn’t pay taxes,” we have yet to see a tax revolt against payment of Company Tax, PAYE, VAT etc. Instead, we observe exemplary levels of compliance by a society that generally does what is right.

But tax revolts and passive resistance to policies can and do happen when they are illogical, unsound, unreasonable, unfair, irrational, and impractical. The e-toll plan is such a policy. It is further complicated by its positioning (or, perhaps, impositioning) on an existing free-freeway with few alternatives for the road user. People have also been angered by the knowledge that their money flows off-shore to handsomely enrich foreign companies. Add to this mix the appalling public consultation, lack of transparency, high costs, bid-rigging in road construction tenders, hints of irregularities on lighting (and possibly other) tenders and you have all the makings of South Africa’s first large scale ‘tax’ revolt.

The reality of the e-toll situation is that once you trigger the starter’s gun, there’s no way of stopping and unscrambling the egg. This issue has become an unfortunate reality for governments in compliant, law abiding societies elsewhere in the world where tolling projects have failed. However, as the reasons and realisation of possible failure for the GFIP e-toll project sink in, our authorities still have a solution in their hands; don’t fire the gun. Abandon a plan destined for failure, before it starts, and seek the alternative, efficient, publicly acceptable funding solutions that are available to alleviate Sanral’s woes.

It’s not too late. Nobody needs to lose face. ‘Re-envisioning’ is a strength, not a weakness. It allows us all to move on to better outcomes and gives Sanral a great opportunity for a better relationship with road users and investors. Failure to do so will simply drive another wedge between government and its people, while a collaborative approach will help government and Sanral to find the best win-win solution and a positive outcome for everyone. It will also buy valuable time to engage more effectively with all stakeholders, whilst implementing an integrated public transport alternative in Gauteng.

Perhaps the authorities will cast this piece aside as posturing speculation. One man’s opinion. Be that as it may, I still wonder why Number One has held back on signing the Transport and Related Matters Amendment Bill – the Bill that triggers the gun, setting Sanral free to start the e-toll process? DM

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