Toll roads: Sanral heads for collision

2011-10-15 15:38

The South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral) is heading for a clash with its political heads over toll roads.

Deputy Transport Minister Jeremy Cronin says the Sanral project is starting to get its priorities confused, and that applies to the controversial Gauteng toll project too.

“We have made a proper mess of it.”

People have been using the road free of charge for a year already. Engineers have got themselves carried away, Cronin says. “We must respect them, but we must also ask questions.”

He said politicians had failed and the consultants carrying out feasibility studies should have known better.

(The decision to implement tolls was taken years ago, before Cronin or Transport Minister S’bu Ndebele took over running the country’s transport.)

Cronin said Sanral was wrongly allowed to determine the priorities in respect of expenditure and said it was a matter for government.

Sanral this week announced its preferred bidder for the N1/N2 Winelands toll road tender, despite instructions from Ndebele to put toll roads on hold for a while.

The contract includes a toll road concession for 26 years. If the concession is excluded from the contract, it is expected that the tender process will have to start from scratch.

This could send shock waves through the construction industry and global partners like French construction giant Bouygues.

Cape Town is making an urgent appeal to the court to stop Sanral from converting the route into a toll road.

Cronin indicated government was not satisfied with the plans. “Look what the money is being spent on.”

He explained that two of the biggest expenditure items were the realigning of the road through the Strand and Somerset West, and the construction of a second Huguenot Tunnel.

Cronin said the road now runs through a built-up urban area, which has a few traffic lights. The idea is to move the road so that it is a main road all the way.

In order to do so, a few thousand families in the Lwandle squatter camp will have to be moved and the people will have to be given other houses. That, Cronin said, would have to be done by Cape Town, which is opposing the project in court.

“There are huge social challenges just to get the traffic to flow a little faster. That’s not a good argument.”

The second large cost factor is the building of the second tunnel. “Is this really the biggest priority in the Western Cape?” he asked.

“Sanral says the roads have reached the end of their designed life, but that doesn’t mean these two elements are essential,” he said.

Cronin said one problem was that Sanral itself appointed consultants to do feasibility and impact studies.

Consultants are then inclined to say what their client wants to hear. These instructions must be given at government level. But Sanral’s excellent technical expertise and project management skills must be used, Cronin said.

For the Gauteng project, the University of Cape Town (UCT) and consultants Arup did studies. Cronin calls these “Mickey Mouse” studies. He says there are other UCT departments with much more knowledge.

He said Arup should have known “thousands of global studies show that traffic congestion is not resolved by widening roads. This aggravates the problem in the medium term since better roads attract more cars.”

Cronin said a broader vision was necessary for a solution. Trains and better public transport, as well as good town planning, would offer a better solution.

In Gauteng, most travelling is within cities, not between cities, earlier studies showed. The Gautrain is intended for inter-urban passenger transport. To spend R20?billion on widening highways was, he said, the wrong decision.

Cronin said Nazir Alli, the CEO of Sanral, like Gautrain head Jack van der Merwe, were technically highly skilled and stated their cases well.

“But small rural communities don’t have a Jack van der Merwe or a Nazir Alli. Priorities must be set politically.”

So far, only a 185km portion of the Gauteng highway improvement project has been completed. The total project includes more than 600km.

The state’s approach now is that the debt for the present phase has been incurred and must be paid by tolls.

But plans to introduce tolling are still vague, and legislative amendment is required to give Sanral the necessary powers.

Cronin doubts whether the requisite plans will be ready in time to be submitted to Parliament this year.

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