The designation of the toll operations of roads agency Sanral as an essential service during the coronavirus lockdown is being questioned by both the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) and the Automobile Association.
Outa CEO Wayne Duvenage added on Wednesday that the government decision on the future of e-tolls should have been taken a long time ago and, with all these other Covid-19 related costs and emergencies, “now is the time for the government to announce the end of e-tolls”.
“The last thing South Africa needs is inefficient systems that are costing taxpayers and are of no benefit to the country,” he said.
Duvenage said very little money is feeding into Sanral’s bonds for the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP) and now, with the lockdown, nothing is certainly feeding in to repay the bonds.
Transport minister Fikile Mbalula gazetted a directive in terms of the Disaster Management Act on 30 March declaring tollgate operators, road emergency operators, employees responsible for the safe operation of the roads, and rail logistics operators essential services with immediate effect.
This followed Mbalula two days earlier providing an update on the implementation of transport regulations during the lockdown, which did not mention e-tolls in South Africa but referred to the Indian government suspending toll collection on its roads during its 21-day lockdown “to ease supply of essential goods movement”.
‘Required to pay’
Vusi Mona, GM of communications at Sanral, said on Wednesday that it is essential during the lockdown that the country’s national road networks remain open and functioning.
“In this light, road traffic continues to travel on both non-toll and tolled roads. Vehicles using these roads during this time are required to pay the relevant toll fees, and as such Sanral and its concessionaires were deemed by the department of transport as essential services.
“This is to allow for the operating of toll booths and essential maintenance of the roads during this period,” he said, adding that Sanral continues to work hard to ensure seamless mobility on the national road network during the lockdown.
“This is done by firstly maintaining core staff to operate the Freeway Management System and monitor the road network for rapid and effective incident responses,” said Mona.
“Secondly, Sanral is proactively responding to the call from the president and is following the guidelines outlined by the department of health to ensure both the health of its employees as well as road users on its toll operations,” he added. “Stringent measures have been put in place at our toll plazas to curb the spread of Covid-19.”
Duvenage said Sanral is obviously desperate for money and will therefore keep tolls operating but failed to understand why tolls are still operating during the lockdown. “Why should people stop and pay over money that could be contaminated?”
AA spokesman Layton Beard said the association could also not see any reason why Sanral’s toll road operations have been designated an essential service and does not think it is a good idea or fair.
Beard said there are obviously certain elements to the overall functions and services that Sanral performs and provides that are definitely essential, such as road maintenance, ensuring cars stuck on the roads are removed, and the clearing of debris, but the AA does not regard tolls as essential.
“This comes at a time when our economy is in a lot of strife and for people to fork out to pay for tolls on the roads they have to use because there is no alternative is quite frankly the last thing on people’s minds. Having said that, the traffic between Pretoria and Johannesburg, for instance, would in any case be very little compared to what it was two months ago,” he said.
30% of normal
Beard pointed out that the bulk of the traffic on the roads should be for essential services. “You have essential providers who are providing an essential service. You would think they would be getting a bit of slack in this regard (from tolls),” he said.
Mona was unable to comment on how much revenue was generated from e-tolls on GFIP this month.
He said early indications are that Sanral experienced approximately 30% of the normal traffic volumes in April but stressed these figures are only reconciled after the end of the month and that registered account holders have a grace period of 31 days in which to pay their e-toll transactions.
“Sanral will only be able to comment on the revenue collected for April after the grace period,” he said.
Duvenage said Outa has estimated that Sanral had to pay Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) between R50-million and R60-million/month in terms of its management contract for GFIP and questioned if Sanral will have to cover some of ETC’s operating expenses during the lockdown and, if so, where these funds will come from.
However, Mona said ETC has a performance-based contract and the company is only paid for services rendered. “During the lockdown period, we offered lesser services to road users, such as in closed customer service centres, reduction in calls received, and so on, because of the reduction in traffic volumes,” he said.
Duvenage said ETC has fixed costs such as salaries, rentals and service providers and doubted it had a high percentage of variable costs that will result in a massive reduction in its expenses.
“I have no doubt that ETC’s costs are going to be more than their income in the month of April,” he said. “My understanding is that Sanral will have to foot that shortfall, which means we have a state-owned entity bailing out a private entity.”
- This article was originally published on Moneyweb and is used here with permission