Wednesday February 8, 2012
Taking a toll on motorists
By P. GUNASEGARAM
It’s sad and lamentable that tolls on highways are going to be with us for a long, long time and that it’s time to rethink the logic behind them.
MONDAY was a public holiday and so we thought we would take a walk to the much vaunted Broga Hill near Semenyih after Kajang on the old road to Seremban from Kuala Lumpur. I had not been that way for a long time and my companions and I needed the walk.
Broga Hill (yes, the town was that same one famed for its opposition to an incinerator to be constructed in the vicinity) did not disappoint. A walk through an oil palm plantation takes you through shrub and lalang along a ridge to a hill about a thousand feet or less high.
From there, you can have a nice almost 360° view for miles around with vistas of plantations, farmland, towns and roads. And by 9am you have very little shelter from the sun.
It’s not everybody’s idea of fun, scrambling on all fours to get up the hill along a steep, sandy, uneven incline and not long after down the same route again, often sliding down on our behinds.
But the four of us, I think, thought it was a nice enough way to spend a public holiday morning. The nicest part, for me at least, was having my thosai with ghee, of course, and a cup of coffee after that.
Small pleasures, yes, except for one niggling little thing (but it was not quite enough to spoil our fun though) – the roads.
No, they were not bad at all – in fact we faced no traffic jam and the roads were good all the way right up to the oil palm plantation where we parked our car for RM2 per entry.
The problem is this: from my place in Shah Alam to Broga Hill, we passed through six toll booths and had to pay more than RM10 in tolls, making it over RM20 for the round trip. Yes, we counted.
In fact, the moment you come out from my house in Setia Alam, unless you are heading towards Klang, there is no way but to go through a toll booth.
Former Works Minister Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu’s promise those days to have alternatives for toll roads obviously went down the drain with a lot of other things! But he is not the only one to blame.
If you live outside Kuala Lumpur and are unfortunate to work in or around the city, you will easily pay in tolls more than you pay in fuel. To take my example, Shah Alam to Broga and back, perhaps no more than 120km will use up about eight litres of fuel costing RM16.20, against a toll of RM20.40, a quarter higher than the cost of fuel.
Suburban Malaysians, especially those who live in the Klang Valley, pay a huge amount in tolls that add to their motoring costs, fuel and the high price of cars included.
If you are unlucky, it is not unusual for your transport costs to be as high as RM600 a month, not counting your car instalments.
While tolls may already be a way of life here, there is no reason why we should consider it a given. There is a real need to think about whether the greater good is served by continuing with this arrangement.
Like power projects, roads cannot be allowed to fail, for otherwise the country would literally come to a standstill. That means if a privatised toll road project fails, the Government should be there to step in with all manner of assistance to make it profitable.
Which begs the question, why privatise in the first place?
In the 80s and 90s, the then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was big on privatisation, seeing it as a major opportunity for growth and patronage.
But it was not all that it was touted to be – what is the use of obtaining growth by charging us for what we got for free before? Every instance of privatisation brought higher charges for the public and big profits for private investors.
Privatisation of toll roads begins with an estimate of projected traffic. Then, you estimate costs. Based on these you project the toll rate and the length of the concession which will give you a good return.
Unfortunately none of this is made public, and there is much that can be fudged to make returns higher.
One way is simply to make the estimated cost much higher, allowing the toll operator to cream off huge construction profits first and at the same time project much higher toll rates for a decent return, a double whammy to both the people and the Government.
If private companies can build these roads at huge profits and charge toll rates which make their companies worth billions of ringgit, can’t the Government build them at a fraction of the cost and save us all a huge amount of money which goes to pay toll concessionaires?
Can’t we use open tenders and a fair evaluation process to get the best deals?
And removing all those toll booths will considerably decrease the traffic jams we see every workday morning and evening at the toll plazas. That’s a right arrangement for the rest of us.
The North-South Expressway had a government-compensation clause in the event projected traffic was lower, which means the concessionaire had hardly any risk.
It also resulted in a conglomerate whose value exceeded RM20bil. And the toll period has been extended in return for a delay in increase of toll rates. Is that warranted? And does that benefit the public good?
Singapore has an excellent system of roads and no tolls to speak of. Germany, where I have had the pleasure of driving on their wonderful autobahns many times, has a fantastic road system linking all parts of the country.
Speed is unlimited on large sections of the highway and there are no tolls – what a combination.
We should make a start now. All new roads should be constructed at the lowest cost possible and the roads maintained by the Government.
That will be a great way for it to start giving back to the people and to make the cost of transport more affordable, reduce infrastructure costs and increase connectivity.
Then some 30 years down the line – not that long a time in history – we may have no more toll roads, but only if we take that brave step now! There is much that needs to be undone.
> The writer, like you, hates toll roads and believes that not only we could have done without them but would have done very well without them.