The gantries will be switched off, but motorists' e-toll debt will not

Sanral and the Ministry of Transport sent confusing messages about the e-tolls switch off, who will pay for what, why Sanral wants to collect outstanding e-toll debts and how it plans to do so

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10/04/2024 14:48:04

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The gantries will be switched off, but motorists' e-toll debt will not

A day before the e-tolls will be switched off, the government still doesn’t seem to have a grip on the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP) finances and why Gauteng motorists objected to the scheme in the first place, or how to force those objectors to pay their outstanding debts that Sanral still wants to collect.

The gantries will be switched off at midnight on Thursday 11 April 2024, however, the authorities made it very clear that the historic e-toll debt remains in place.

This emerged at a media briefing held on Wednesday jointly by Sanral chair Themba Mhambi, Sanral CEO Reginal Demana, Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi, Minister of Transport Sindisiwe Chikunga, and Gauteng Transport MEC Kedibone Tlabela. OUTA watched the briefing online here.

Information from the briefing was confusing and some key issues were not clarified.

Minister Chikunga believes that Gauteng motorists objected to e-tolls because they didn’t really understand the electronic tolling system. This statement, on its own, signifies that the Minister really has not grasped the fundamental reasons as to why there was widescale objection to the scheme. The Minister emphasised that the user must pay for these Gauteng freeways upgrades, but then indicates that this toll money was also to be used to fund non-toll roads. This is a gross contradiction of the “user-pays” principle of Sanral’s tolling scheme in South Africa. Furthermore, there are many other urban and inter-city freeway upgrades throughout the country that are not subjected to tolling. Where is the consistency in their application of their so-called “user-pays principle”?  

Sanral officials confirmed that the GFIP roads were upgraded as part of South Africa’s international undertakings made to get the Soccer World Cup in 2010, however, the Minister couldn’t explain why other cities didn’t toll their upgraded infrastructure. In reality, the Gauteng freeways needed to be upgraded regardless of whether we hosted the Soccer World Cup event or not, due to congestion a few years before that.

The historical e-toll debts remain. The minister said at the briefing that “motorists are still obligated to pay”, however, she admitted that they were still having discussions on how to enforce this. The reality on this issue is the Sanral board decided to stop pursuing the debt by way of filing summonses against e-toll defaulters in March 2019. This was their only mechanism left for them to chase this debt, as all their previous threats of withholding licences and seeking bad credit ratings had come to naught. No amount of posting e-toll bills to defaulters has worked to date. 

Claiming there is outstanding e-toll debt is a fallacy

“We are astounded by Minister Chikunga’s comments that they are still deliberating on the outstanding e-toll debt matter,” says Wayne Duvenage, OUTA CEO. “Quite frankly, in our opinion, there is no outstanding e-toll debt from motorists. This is also reflected as such in Sanral’s financial statements, whereby all past e-toll debts they couldn’t pursue were written off years ago.” With no further options for pursuing this debt, the bulk of which has already prescribed, this notion of trying to squeeze unpaid e-toll bills from the wallets of millions of motorists is a fallacy and illusion that Sanral is simply unable to accept.”

It is also important to note that OUTA is still involved in defending the cases of motorists who received summonses for e-toll debt and approached OUTA for help. These cases have been on hold since Sanral stopped pursuing the debt in 2019. OUTA’s attorneys have written to Sanral’s attorneys asking for clarity on the way forward on these cases.

There was a confusing response at the briefing to the question of whether e-toll debtors can use e-tags at other toll plazas. Sanral emphasised that the e-tags can be used at all plazas, and that historic e-toll debt would not be absorbed into future e-tag accounts, however, it was unclear how this would work.

Premier Lesufi confirmed that Gauteng will pay 30% of the debt – he says they bargained down from 60%. While the premier would like to be applauded for his noble negotiations, it is our view that he should not have allowed the province of Gauteng to get sucked into any of the GFIP debt that Sanral and the national Department of Transport were responsible for in the first place. 

Sanral borrowed approximately R21 billion to upgrade the Gauteng freeway network roads between 2008 and 2011.

At Wednesday’s briefing, the media were told that the GFIP debt is R43bn. This is the amount which Gauteng province agreed in 2022 to pay 30% towards.

OUTA has tracked the National Treasury transfers to Sanral for their GFIP project, which is explicitly reflected in Sanral’s financial statements over the past 12 years. This amount totals R26.6bn since 2012. The question we still have (and have repeatedly asked), is how was this funding from Treasury was used in the settlement of the GFIP bonds and/or the interest accrued? This R26.6bn allocation from Treasury is over and above their other non-tolled road allocations of R79.5bn to Sanral, and a further R50bn that Sanral has earned from its own tolled portfolio over the same 12-year period from 2012 to 2023.

What is clear to OUTA was that there is still no apology from the authorities for the introduction of a grossly irrational and expensive scheme, which was subjected to excessively overpriced road construction costs and e-toll collection contracts which have been a R14bn waste of money according to our views on the matter. 

We do not buy Premier Lesufi’s explanation that he was misrepresented in the media on his statement that those who had paid e-tolls would be refunded. He made this statement emphatically and never implied at the time that this was under discussion.

More information 

A soundclip with comment by OUTA CEO, Wayne Duvenage is here.

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