Newsmaker – Nazir Alli: For whom the roads tolls

Nazir Alli leaves home just after the 8am news. He joins the highway at either the Marlboro Drive or Woodmead Drive on-ramps in Sandton for the 50km drive to roads agency Sanral’s head office in Pretoria.

Sanral CEO Alli says that before the improvement to Gauteng’s freeways, the journey used to take him more than an hour, but these days he makes it to the office in less than 40 minutes.

“So you can see the difference it has made in that regard. One derives great pleasure from seeing that – that you are actually making a difference in the quality of the journey experience,” he says proudly.

When we meet, Alli and his team have spent three days briefing the panel set up by Gauteng Premier David Makhura to investigate the impact of e-tolling on residents of the province.

Their appearance at the meeting reflects something of a change of heart, since they initially wanted nothing to do with the panel.

Alli diplomatically dodges that issue, saying they were not necessarily opposed to briefing the panel. They eventually agreed after “taking guidance” on the matter, he says.

A qualified civil engineer, Alli has become the face of the much-maligned and loathed electronic tolling of Gauteng freeways.

Sanral incurred a R20?billion debt to improve a network of Gauteng freeways and that money needs to be repaid – by those who drive the freeways. A toll is charged for every kilometre travelled on the designated highways.

But a large chunk of ordinary motorists, labour federation Cosatu, civil society groups, opposition parties and the ANC in Gauteng are opposed to e-tolling, describing it as an added financial burden to already overstretched consumers.

Not so, explains Alli. He says the savings motorists make from less congestion on smoother, wider roads far outweigh the costs of e-tolling.

“We shouldn’t be talking about the benefit [of e-tolling]. Maybe we should be talking about the saving. People will start to recognise that they are saving. When there’s congestion, external costs to society are much higher than the tariff that you pay,” he asserts.

Alli says he’s saddened by how the debate on e-tolling and the wider infrastructure programme has become a political football because this draws attention away from the benefits derived out of state spending on improving roads and other infrastructure.

“It’s very unfortunate that infrastructure development is a new terrain for struggle. It shouldn’t be. We should all be making sure the necessary infrastructure is provided.”

Asked about the low uptake of registration for e-tolls among Gauteng motorists and whether this was an indication that they were rejecting e-tolling, he points out that six different courts found in favour of the policy, which paved the way for its implementation.

“In a way, we feel very frustrated that people will not accept the rulings of six courts. It doesn’t mean that every time a court goes against you, you don’t have to accept the rulings of that court. What kind of society are we building? We can’t be selective as to which rules of our country we must obey and respect, and which we won’t.”

Sanral figures show that more than 1?million vehicles have been registered for e-tolling and the agency is confident compliance levels will increase.

Electronic tolling is now being introduced at existing toll plazas around the country as an additional payment option for motorists who don’t want to physically stop and pay toll fees at each gate when travelling.

Sanral hopes this will also increase traffic flows at busy tollgates like those along the N1 to Polokwane during Easter and the festive season.

Does he still enjoy his job despite the pressure?

“I still enjoy my work. Part of the reason I think I enjoy my work is the quality of the colleagues I have around me. My colleagues make it very bearable for me to come and do work; and also, importantly, the support I get from our minister. The support of family is also important,” says the father of two before he is whisked away to another engagement.

When he’s done, he’ll join the N1 highway and make his way home in time for supper.

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