Ofentse Mokwena | Municipal budgets: the link to giving people reliable transport services

Ofentse Mokwena (Supplied)
Ofentse Mokwena (Supplied)
  • The supplementary budget brings attention to municipalities and their role in executing transport functions.
  • Consistent with the initial budget, the public transport network grant is shrinking.
  • Provincial and municipal officials are the custodians of transport issues in their jurisdiction. Without them on the frontlines, markets fail and municipal issues escalate.


Under normal circumstances, the budget splits potential spending equitably between provinces and municipalities of different shapes and sizes.

Some transport allocations are generally for roadway maintenance and infrastructure, while others are embedded in conditional grants, with prerequisites to unlock their spending.

The supplementary budget narrows spending slightly, but it brings attention to municipalities and their role in executing the transport function.

Road infrastructure

From a road infrastructure perspective, rural road management systems remain unscathed. Provision of rural road infrastructure is important for the sprawling villages and towns. Some of which have had gravel roads for decades and lag behind in economic development largely due to the cost of access, in time, distance and mobility.

Provincial road maintenance budgets narrow down from R11.5 billion to R9.8bn, remaining robust to keep the tarmac free from potholes assuming appropriate reporting and responsiveness from public works and transport.

The distribution of the budget for road infrastructure is largely for maintenance, but considering the gap in non-motorised transport facilities (i.e. sidewalks and bikeways), there are other allocations that could contribute to this purse.

Sanitising facilities

Consistent with the initial budget, the public transport network grant is shrinking, and R1 billion is directed toward sanitising public transport facilities. The network grant has largely been used for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) initiatives, although the policy reforms expanded their scope toward minibus taxis and non-motorised transport.

From the general infrastructure budgets municipalities are permitted to use about 10%, or R146m for sanitisation efforts at transport interchanges, taxi ranks and terminals. Bringing the total possible spend in this regard to about R1.146bn to be used for physical pandemic relief measures at public transport facilities.

However, this does bring attention to the lack of appropriate public transport facility budgets given the limited consolidated data of all taxi ranks, and bus terminals in urban and rural areas.

For some this budget may be better spent on basic infrastructure needs at the interchanges, over efforts to disinfect all year round - a potential procurement and compliance nightmare.

It is upon the ward councillors and municipal officials to translate the allocations through their prioritisation of matters in the Integrated Development Plans, Service Delivery Budgets and Integrated Transport Plans. In provinces with heavy freight activity, some truck stops and weigh-bridges may need to be considered for sanitisation based on the volume of activity.

At this point, a database of all transport facilities and their conditions could be useful for scheduling and mapping how the allocation is spent. It is also important that the new performance indicator is included in performance evaluation metrices of transport officials.

On one hand, associations, ward committees and organised groups have incentives to hold officials to account on this allocation, a clear description of how thinly this budget is spread should be emphasised and clarified. In this sense, expectations may become more reasonable and negotiable rather than harbouring disappointment.

Public transport operations

To keep subsidised public transport operations running, the R6.7bn budgeted remains unadjusted. This is somewhat concerning given the nature of transport operations with fewer seats available (i.e. 50% capacity), if passenger travel demand rises, increasing bus frequencies could place upward pressure on the operating costs. Unless if other transport operators carry the additional weight, if any.

A similar cycle of risk is plausible in the context of scholar transport.

There are significant opportunities to reform the monitoring and evaluation efforts such that they are embedded in these contracts and the allocation’s utilisation is rationalised appropriately.

Another aspect is the heightened tensions between government's R1.135bn courtesy allocation to the taxi industry, and the provincial and municipal level issues that remain unattended to.

The figure is not part of this budget, but the conditions attached roughly sketch a "conditional allocation".

From a transport planning perspective, the conditions attached to accessing this courtesy allocation are similar to the requirements associated with applying for an operating licence - with the exception of having a registered business, and business bank account.

Perhaps as a mechanism to weave illegal operators out in principle, this effort appears to shift the enforcement and auditing requirements of operating licences away from municipal and provincial regulatory structures.

As a result, it may expose commuters and operators to uncoordinated changes in prices and operations because the transport functions aren't functioning as the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) had envisioned.

There is substantially more pressure on the municipal officials in charge of transport to cascade from coordinating and administering to engagement. Actively prioritising lower hanging fruits in their transport plans for tactical implementation.

Much of their efforts could enhance the battle to reduce infections, facilitate contact trancing and negotiate fair public transport pricing and services. There are some opportunities to encourage non-motorised transport use, albeit without a direct budget.

Lastly, the preoccupation with identifying logistics interventions that improve how goods traffic flows through towns and cities may grow in importance, and officials should face this head on.

Long-run budget gaps: scholar transport and road safety

Two key budget gaps for scholar transport and road safety strategy implementation make for important considerations. Without a direct scholar transport budget conditionally allocated to provinces and municipalities, the administration, monitoring and evaluation of equitable services might go under the radar.

This disrupts how policies are formulated, because the budgetary guide is barely embedded in the inter-departmental nature of the allocation. Contributing to protracted dissatisfaction and unresponsive delivery of learner mobility in non-motorised transport, contracted bus services and scholar transport regulations that reflect owner-operated services.

For road safety, 40% of fatalities were pedestrians last year and many of the interventions were roadblocks and campaigns along highways. There is no direct budget for road safety education, training and campaigns spread all year round. While the strategy has been in place for years, an unspoken assumption is that officials will redirect some of their spending towards road safety related efforts.

Engagements with officials in Limpopo reveal that there are limits to coordination, and it is much harder to coordinate a multi-disciplinary effort like road safety. A key challenge is that road safety interventions are specialised in nature and require continuous and high-resolution information flows between traffic and transport departments. Combining a budget allocation with sufficient capacity to execute on the ground is one avenue to resolve this.

Transport functions at municipalities

Whether it is the minibus taxi strike in Alexandra, blocked roads in Eersterust, or rural bus routes in Lebowagkomo, provincial and municipal officials are the custodians of transport issues in their jurisdiction. Without them on the frontlines, markets fail and municipal issues escalate.

The above-mentioned budget allocations require tangible results, transparent monitoring and a collaborative spirit between all stakeholders at community level. How can this be done in the age of physical distancing, tighter timelines and more tension? People need to do the work.

Transport officials have their work cut out this year, but there are many municipalities operating without transport authorities or functions without warm bodies. Especially outside of the cities - smaller municipalities face limits to execute transport functions because of a lack of capacity.

In one study in the North West, we found that funding the implementation of devolving functions was a key limit for officials in smaller municipalities because many were spread too thinly across their districts (cause for burnout). We also found that task teams were a key avenue to initiate the process for building institutional capacity for coordinating the implementation of transport plans.

In general, the budget needs serious rationalisation, but it is the officials, ward committees, taxi associations, contracted operators and other community groups who are the people driving forward fair distribution.

Coordination between provinces and districts can have an impact on the quality of interventions, monitoring and performance assessment at municipal level. Perhaps it's time to review the transport plans to find tactical interventions that stretch spending throughout the year.

Better yet, it might be the best time to build capacity at municipal level, especially for the execution of transport functions.

Ofentse Mokwena is a transport economist, lecturer, researcher and podcast host. Views expressed are his own.

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