Opinionista John Clarke 6 November 2015

E-tolls: A failing system that was “too big to fail”

If the e-toll system was widely cherished, and if SANRAL enjoyed public trust, it would be no big deal that the electronic measurement systems in the gantries lack certification of conformance to legislated metrology standards. Lesson 101 for any large and complex innovation: The beneficiaries of the system need to be enrolled as the protagonists, and not taken for granted.

Soon after the e-toll system became operational on 26 February 2014, an insider from the Austrian company, Kaptsch TrafficCom, (KTC) who had become thoroughly disenchanted with the way in which SANRAL was mishandling the ambitious e-toll innovation, wrote to the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance. (OUTA)

“I think it’s a very simple case of someone in (or on behalf of) SANRAL getting delusions of grandeur, the project envisaged thus being too technologically complex to realize in the environment it is supposed to operate in, the organisational structure of subcontractors was poorly conceived, with many subcontractors not being directly accountable to the recipient of their services, and then the delays and cost-overruns making bean-counters at SANRAL go so crazy that they save SANRALs top management a cerebral melt-down.”

Over a number of weeks he shared information that helped to confirm OUTA’s suspicion that SANRAL had not, in fact, done their homework to ensure the system would be efficient, effective and above all, true to the values and principles of the Constitution, as expressed in Section 195.

Now 18 months later, thanks to an astute question posed in Parliament by Anton Alberts, Member of Parliament of the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), we now have the revelation that the equipment that is supposed to accurately record and transpose data of each vehicle passing under each capture point, has not been tested and certified in terms of legislation that protects the public from being ripped off. It is important to know if the equipment precisely, and accurately measures what it is supposed to measure.

While a human person like a Cabinet Minister can decide what the rate per km should be, the entire system presupposes that other elements in the equation, that combine to calculate the liability of a particular motorist, provide information that is consistently factual and accurate. That is not only to avoid any “thumbs on scales” type of exploitative tampering, but to ensure data integrity and reliability in the event of a legal dispute or criminal act occurring, that the information could help settle or prove.

To illustrate: Most terrestrial based speedometers under-reports the speed of the car by about 10%. We know that because we now have devices in our cars that use Global Position System (GPS) technology, and triangulation readings to calculate a more accurate speed reading, that more closely matches the reading that a speed camera will record, one that has been properly certified in terms of the Legal Metrology Act by the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications.

My GPS device can even calculate the cost of the fuel I have used, and produce a report on my carbon emissions from the data that is stored in the memory. If I want to remind myself where I was, and what route I drove, I can connect the GPS device to my computer, download the data, and overlay it on Google Maps to reconstruct the journey. All this is useful so that if SANRAL does, indeed, take me to court for not paying e-tolls I have my own data set which will show exactly how many kms I have driven on the e-tolled roads, and by simple arithmetic, calculate the quantum of money that I am refusing to pay.

Modern information technology can be a wonderful and reliable servant, but in the wrong hands and with the wrong purpose, a tyrannical master. Twenty one years ago, prior to the first democratic elections, I was privileged to work for the Independent Electoral Commission. The evaluation report I wrote after the elections was titled: “Inside the IEC: A human triumph over an organisational nightmare”. The key lesson was that despite having at our disposal cutting-edge technology, and a legitimate legal mandate, and lots of donor money, the sheer immensity of the logistical challenge would have thwarted the objective of a “free and fair election for all” were it not for the “soft” human factors. Commitment, determination, practical know-how and human ingenuity, all aligned with a unified commitment to the goal.

Given that experience, it was with a sense of dread that I saw SANRAL heading toward another “organisational nightmare”, because it did not have the requisite commitment, ingenuity normative/ethical integrity, and good old-fashioned common sense to draw on, and to ensure a human triumph. What was supposed to be an “Intelligent Transport System” that used open road tolling as a revenue stream to develop a more integrated, efficient and safe urban public transport system, became a cure that has now become much worse than the disease. Why? It became “too big to fail”.

OUTA’s whistle blower saw the writing on the wall:

“The system is designed to toll thousands of kilometers, not only 185km. The decision to scale this way is to be found in a SANRAL executive decision, based on future speculation about expansion; mostly in Western Cape and KZN. And an idea opposed by KTC, as it drives up our risks, too; we pay the operating expenses not SANRAL. They forced our hand…as the contract was already signed. We wanted to scale differently, to be more economical. SANRAL were suffering delusions of grandeur, due to the World Cup being hosted at that time. Everything had to be big.”

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent”, wrote EF Schumacher, author of the classic book Small is Beautiful. “It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.”

Schumacher’s point is not to glorify smallness. The contention of his book was better expressed in the subtitle, Economics as if people mattered.

If a system really has to be big (like hosting a world cup football tournament) and if we do really have to pioneer new unexplored territories, the most critical requirement is that the people who are most affected have to active protagonists, not passive dependents. To try and make any complex system work, without satisfying human aspiration and sense of shared purpose, is to try and sew buttons on a custard pie.

E-tolls must fall, not because I want this to happen. It is simply because Nazir Alli believed it was “too big to fail”. DM