Sanral is about more than e-tolling

Vusi MonaNo roads, no growth. It’s as simple as that. This lies at the heart of what drives the SA National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral).

It plans, designs, constructs, operates, rehabilitates and maintains South Africa’s national roads. That is our mandate. The funding of these is the responsibility of South Africans and the methodology is a matter of government policy.

Frankly, as a primarily engineering outfit, we would rather stay out of policy and funding-methodology debates. South Africans must tell us what projects they want us to deliver, give us the money and hold us accountable to that. When engineers spend time debating policy and funding issues instead of looking after roads, we are heading for trouble.

The Urban Land Institute and Ernst & Young reported in 2011: “Governments around the world rank infrastructure policy among their greatest concerns. The modernisation of infrastructure is seen as being critical to future economic competitiveness and crucial to accommodating expanding populations in urbanising environments.”

Sanral is fully cognisant of the fact that the national road network links the main cities and economic regions of the country, and thus plays an important developmental role in economic growth and social upliftment. In South Africa there are three types of road networks: national, provincial and municipal.

The total length of all roads is about 750 000km. Sanral only looks after the national road network, a total of 19 704km, made up of both toll and non-toll roads. Of this total, the non-toll roads account for 84%, which are financed by the national fiscus. That leaves only 16% which are tolled using funds raised from the capital markets.

Although the proposed toll roads in Gauteng have been in the news more in the recent past due to the debate around e-tolling (the method of collection), Sanral has also been making huge infrastructure upgrades on its non-tolling portfolio across all the nine provinces.

National Treasury funds the entire non-toll portfolio through the annual budget allocations. This alone makes nonsense of the sensational headlines that the agency is broke.

At any rate, according to the Sanral Act, which I suspect many commentators and critics of the agency have never read, Sanral can only be liquidated through an act of Parliament.

Sanral has made strides in introducing technological innovation on South Africa’s road network. Its freeway management system (FMS) is operational in Cape Town, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. The system provides real-time freeway traffic flow conditions, including details of any incidents, to local radio stations that inform many hundreds of thousands of motorists each day.

Accurate and comprehensive incident data has been analysed to highlight accident trends and high-risk locations. Sanral’s non-toll portfolio includes the upgrading of sections of the road networks, including interchanges, construction of pedestrian bridge crossings, widening of freeway lanes and resurfacing, as well as routine road maintenance (RRM). Sanral operates RRM contracts on every kilometre of road network that it manages.

Some of the non-toll projects that Sanral has undertaken include:

  • Construction of the N8 Interchange and Overpass at ThabaNchu in the Free State;
  • Improvement to the Chota Motala Interchange in Pietermaritzburg;
  • Innovation on the Northern Cape Road Project;
  • Labour Intensive Construction of Pedestrian Walkways in East London;
  • Construction of Access Roads for Mpophomeni Village in the Eastern Cape;
  • Umthatha bridge project;
  • Periodic Maintenance (Reseal) between Khathu and Kuruman; and
  • Improvements between Melkbos Intersection and Atlantis Intersection.

Although the road agency’s capacity is under pressure as the roads under its control expand, it welcomes the challenge. Last year, Sanral took over 2 000km of Eastern Cape roads. It is the agency’s same capacity and expertise that saw the North West provincial government appoint Sanral to take over 1 400km in the province.

It is an expertise that led the DA’s Ian Ollis, one of the agency’s fiercest critics, to describe the agency as a “world-class project manager” in a recent article in the media. The need to improve the road infrastructure is great.

As far back as 2000, the Automobile Association indicated that there are three major consequences of the deterioration of the road network:

  • The cost to repair the roads is seven times higher than it would have been if adequate maintenance had been done;
  • The backlog in funding grows;
  • Road user costs are twice as high on a road in poor condition compared with a road in good condition.

In 2010, the road maintenance backlog stood at R149 billion. South Africa has to contend with this backlog with limited funding available directly from the fiscus. Tolling and private sector involvement make it possible to find funding sources outside the fiscus and to use future revenue streams to build and maintain infrastructure on the tolling side.

The country is currently rolling out massive infrastructure developments and Sanral plays a crucial and ongoing part in this. The Development Bank of Southern Africa reported last year that “infrastructure lies at the heart of government’s stimulatory fiscal package and is a pivotal component of the New Growth Path, accounting for just less than 8% of GDP in the 2012/13 fiscal year”.

For Sanral it is about roads – good roads that are well maintained. But where there are budgetary constraints, these well-maintained roads will have to be built through selectively using tolling.

The South African government is not about to declare tolls on the 19 704km that Sanral is responsible for.

As a matter of fact, the e-tolled roads that have occupied headlines form only 201km of the national road network. Ultimately, for Sanral it is about growing the economy and moving South Africa forward – a point that is sometimes lost by those who are obsessed with the e-tolling debate.

Sanral is about more than e-tolling.

Vusi Mona is the head of communications at the South African National Roads Agency.

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