To be tolling or not be tolling?

We interview Andres de Wet, about his views regarding the proposed tolling of the N1 and N2 by SANRAL. The current plan is to toll the N1 from the R300 to Sandhills in the Hex River Valley (mostly rural areas) and the N2 from the R300 to Bot River. In this interview, we explore some of the potential issues, including the impact on the economy and alternative long term solutions.

Future Cape Town: How do you foresee the proposed tolls impacting on the economy of nearby areas and the province as a whole? Is it not just a form of a congestion charge?

Andres: The province will have difficulty in implementing their agri-processing growth strategy. Tolling of these strategic routes to Cape Town will consolidate further economic growth to Cape Town and surrounds at the cost of the Overberg, Breede Valley and surrounding interior districts. Already, one sees that although the Huguenot Tunnel brings the Breede Valley “closer” to Cape Town, the fees involved still creates an economic and ideological divide between Cape Town and western Winelands and the interior Winelands. More tolling on this route will exacerbate this phenomenon and make Worcester and surrounds less accessible for residents, investors and economic development that must feed into the strategic ports in Cape Town.

SANRAL mostly tolls suburban or rural freeway infrastructure, congestion charges are an inner-city urban phenomenon. Congestion charges are employed where public-transit alternatives exist and keeping private vehicles from entering an inner-city are a priority to keep grid-lock at bay. This concept does not apply where no viable public-transit alternatives exist and surely do not apply to sparsely populated rural areas.

Future Cape Town: In terms of accessibility, around and into areas like Grabouw, Worcester, Somerset West, how will the proposed tolling impact this?

Andres: SANRAL tolling plans will improve traffic safety marginally in Worcester and Somerset West. In the case of Somerset West, N2 congestion is a real problem and the Helderberg Bypass is almost a must. In the case of N1 Worcester, internal town traffic will actually worsen as the town will now only have two access points instead of the current 3. Although they will now be grade-separated intersections, the access routes and arterial routes around the town will not be addressed. SANRAL is not even building the Worcester Eastern Bypass, causing the last High Street interchange to be “orphaned” and forcing all freight traffic on the R60 to rat-race through the town. Grabouw will have minimal impact access-wise, as the two access points to the N2 will remain, albeit grade-separated.

Future Cape Town: What is your view for the City of Cape Town entering into a formal legal dispute with SANRAL. Were SANRAL just going to go ahead with tolls regardless of the valid inputs from various parties?

Andres: Their concerns seem valid. From dealing with SANRAL, I have found that tolling is already a given when they enter the public participation phase. They seldom offer major concessions and will seldom, if ever make concessions on alignment, interchange design and location and most importantly, toll plaza placement. They may offer concessions on tolling fees, particularly for isolated communities, but not much else. The premise of tolling, they’re unwavering. The impact assessments have already stated rural communities will see much benefit, as traffic volumes at not sufficient enough to justify a “travel saving” in exchange for “toll costs.”

Future Cape Town: Are toll roads an effective way of raising finance to fund our crumbling road infrastructure nationally? I have also noted some Joburg residents stating that when tolling starts in Gauteng it will simply divert traffic through the M1 and the heart of Sandton and the Johannesburg CBD. Are there any alternatives in Cape Town if the N1 and N2 are tolled?

Andres: No! Roads are all over the nation. SANRAL says a user-pays principal is fair, but it is not and can never be equitable, unless all roads are tolled nationwide. National funding that would have been used on a road that is now tolled, is simply allocated elsewhere to other road infrastructure. Thus, yes, you are paying for that road, but now your fuel levies are now going towards roads you will never/seldom travel on and none of it is spent on your tolled highway. There are no alternatives to the N1 or N2 for communities beyond Du Toitskloof and Sir Lowry’s passes respectively. Paarl or Somerset West can use the R101 or R102 to access Cape Town, Worcester, De Doorns, Bot River and Grabouw will have no choice, they will be captive to the tolls to access Cape Town.

Future Cape Town: Are there any solutions to the saga that have not been considered, and that would likely be more viable?

Andres: The only long-term and holistic solution is the National Treasury keeping their fingers out of the fuel-levy pot. The fuel-levy should be increased slightly, ring-fenced to transport infrastructure only and provinces should be given the power to access portions of those funds for provincial transport infrastructure. The National Treasury uses the fuel levy for other state financial obligations. This is not fair on the road user, the taxi passenger or SANRAL. If SANRAL and the respective Departments of Transport were the only beneficiaries of transport-related tax, they may not be so bombastic, extortionist and desperate for funding.