Opinionista Wayne Duvenage 6 March 2018

E-toll scheme limps on life support – thanks to corporate SA

Almost four-and-a-half-years ago, the world’s most grandiose of e-toll schemes was switched on in Gauteng, despite research that indicated a high potential for failure due to public dissent and outrage. As it turned out, the world’s best e-toll technology supported by a forced legislative process would prove to be useless against the backdrop of poor administration, cumbersome systems, ineffective enforcement and an angry citizenry.

The demise of the elaborate e-toll scheme, hatched by Sanral who sold the idea to the state authorities in 2008, was always just a matter of time. Little were they aware, or willingly oblivious to the sizeable pitfalls and challenges lay ahead for them.

Today, the need to convince Sanral and the government of the scheme’s failure no longer exists. They know and have even admitted to this. Sanral’s prior claims of success and high levels of compliance back in 2013 and 2014 have been exposed as nothing more than misleading propaganda, as the active user uptake was nowhere near the one-million mark they espoused at the time. Sanral no longer denounces civil society’s claims of the roughly “one-in-four” e-toll compliance levels, or that Gauteng’s e-tolls will struggle to fetch R900m this year, which is substantively lower than the R3-billion required per annum, to achieve their intended targets.

The purple light gantries continue to blaze forth and the few vehicles that have e-tags fitted to their windscreens no longer hear the “beeping tag” that signals another R3.20 debit on their Sanral account, every 10km or so. Almost every one of the tagged vehicles is a company car and the driver has no say. “It’s company policy” the employee is told, “you don’t have a choice”, much to many a driver’s disgust. “It’s not my tag, the company insists we fit them, so don’t judge me,” is the response on arrival at the family weekend gathering.

With only one-in-four users paying their e-tolls, this is just enough to keep the system limping along at R60 to R70-million a month, barley sufficient to cover the collection and administration costs. Very little, if anything has been allocated toward settling the multi-billion rand bonds or even the interest bill emanating from the borrowings.

So who are these one-in-four still paying? Estimates show that a handful (less than 5%) are ordinary citizens who make this choice of their own volition. They do so mainly because they don’t want any trouble with the law or surprisingly, they are part of a rare segment who believe in the scheme. Most of the tagged vehicles that make up the one-in-four belong to corporate entities and the leasing/car rental companies. There are also some that are owned by government who really have no choice to pay. Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprising), many government departments and municipalities have stopped paying their e-toll bills. They simply don’t have the money or ability to administer their accounts and have long since fallen foul of their own government’s policy on the e-toll matter.

The civil courage has come from three in four of the road users who have brought the cumbersome, inefficient and expensive scheme to its knees. They have remained resilient and defiant of government’s irrational scheme, one that lacked transparency and was arrogantly thrust on society in a “do as you’re told and don’t ask why” manner. Their reward, which will be enjoyed by society at large, will soon be the removal of the inefficient “not every user pays” scheme.

But how long is soon? A year, six months? It could even be a month or so away, if a number of the current key-account-holders, (corporate fleets and car rental companies) decided to halt their support for the scheme. And they have every right to do so because their e-toll accounts are in a mess. Sanral struggles to reconcile their queries and the company creditors clerks have had enough. “Keep the peace with Sanral,” the company accounting officers plead, “we do business with government and we don’t want a bad mark against our procurement profile.” In the case of vehicle leasing and rental companies, it’s more likely a matter of “we’re making a nice profit from the admin fees and e-tag charges passed on the vehicle users, so let’s milk it for as long as we can.”

The real test for the continuation of e-tolls lies in three developments about to unfold:

  • A Gauteng Premier’s eventual disgust at how this scheme has plagued the citizens in his province, having dealt with numerous complaints from all sides;
  • the need for Sanral to make a decision on whether to launch the request for tenders to contract the “fee collection and e-toll management” for another five yearss; and
  • the forthcoming national and provincial elections just over a year away, at which the ruling party is acutely aware that the e-toll scheme will set them back by several percentage points, as it did in 2014.

Many large fleet owners have already pulled the e-toll plug years ago, choosing to rather challenge Sanral’s poor administration and set aside internal financial provisions to counter the slight possibility of the expense ever arising. They know all too well they will never be refunded when the scheme eventually shuts down. A case of “I’d rather have the money in my business bank account earning interest, than in Sanral’s”. By doing so, many fleet owners have saved themselves several millions of rands to date.

Whichever way one looks at it, the scheme is defunct. But it clings to its life support system and will continue to limp along until a number of corporate “key account” members decide to constrict the thin oxygen flow that barely keeps the e-toll scheme alive.

When will they exercise the moral courage to do so? While the waiting game continues, Kapsch TrafficCom prays the scheme ticks on for as long as it can, enabling their cut to be siphoned off for as long as possible. “All hail the corporate decision makers,” is the Kapsch boardroom chant, “for it is they who will contribute once again to annual bonuses.” Or will they? DM

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