Money, money, money …
A politician, an economist and a chief executive walk into a room … actually, they walked into a 2012 Road Freight Association (RFA) Conference panel discussion and were joined by government, the RFA itself, a fleet manager and an engineer. FOCUS was there too …
It was Tuesday May 22, 2012. The e-toll saga had just quietened. Nazir Alli had stepped down as chief executive of the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral). Pitchforks had been put away, Molotov cocktails emptied and all seemed well.
The panel discussion was to be about funding models for road infrastructure, but with Alli no longer available to make an appearance and the discussion taking place early in the morning after one of the famous RFA gala dinners, it looked like we might be in for some bland monotone dialogue. Well, we weren’t.
Seated at the front of the room were some heavy hitters – economist Mike Schüssler; Dawie Roodt, Efficient Group chief economist; Gavin Kelly, RFA technical and operations manager; Garth Bolton, joint CEO of Cargo Carriers; Paul Nordengen, principal researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR); and Marissa Moore, acting chief director of public finance, urban development and infrastructure at the National Treasury. In place as facilitator was Frank Wagner, CEO of Unitrans Supply Chain Solutions.
And there – bravely facing the hungry lions (firebrand journalists and angry fleet operators) – was Nazir Alli, who arrived after all.
With every person from each of the different interest groups having a different opinion about funding for road infrastructure, this was going to be interesting.
Economists Schüssler and Roodt went as far as saying that taxes should be eliminated altogether. “The tolling system can work,” said Roodt, “but only if other taxes are cut down.” Schüssler took things a step further: “Why don’t we take Dawie’s idea further and eliminate all taxes completely and only pay for the services we use, so I will only pay government officials when I go get a passport, for example, and then you can toll me on every road!”
Of course, this horrified government. “The cost to maintain the national road network is high, and we are facing ten times the travel density the roads are actually capable of handling,” said the National Treasury’s Moore. “Plus, no-one can dispute that this is an ageing network. The big picture is depressing. We need the user-pay principle to correct this.”
Quoting French political economist Frédéric Bastiat, Alli said what government has been trying to say for years: “The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.” In short, that South African road users are expecting potholes and congestion to disappear, and new lanes and roads to appear … and for all this to be free.
Nordengen added that if vehicle maintenance is not made a top priority, a four-lane highway will be as good as one that has two lanes. “As roads deteriorate, they become less efficient, and so congestion will increase. To what extent are there breakdowns, poor driver behaviour and crashes? Putting R149 billion rand into refurbishing our roads will be for nothing if there are no traffic management systems in place. Better upkeep of roads and a better public transport system might remedy this.”
“We’re asking the wrong questions,” said Alli. “We need to stop the funding questions and ask ‘where does government get this money?’ The answer is you – and if it’s not you, then it’s borrowing, and then we are losing sovereignty. If we aren’t careful, we will become like our northern neighbour.
“How are we going to develop this country of more than 49 million people if, somewhere along the line, it becomes easy to say ‘I am not going to pay tax; I will only pay for the services I get and nothing else.’? At the end of the day, it’s individuals who have to make the contribution to the society we live in. We have an issue regarding roads that government is trying to correct, and we must all accept that this is your issue as much theirs.”
Alli is right in saying that it is our issue. The possibility of not having what we need to survive, never mind thrive, because our roads are too hazardous to drive on is frightening.
The point that he’s missing is that we do want good roads, and we are happy to pay for them. We just don’t want to pay a disproportionate amount, and we don’t want some sectors and some individuals to carry a heavier burden than others.