Why Urban Road Tolling is Problematic in Zimbabwe

By Zibusiso Dube

Moves by the government to introduce urban tollgates appear to be gaining momentum with the Zimbabwe National Roads Administration (ZINARA) board chairman, Albert Mugabe, last week revealing possible urban toll fees when he appeared before the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Local Government, Public Works and National Housing and  Parliament. Also, the Minister of Transport and Infrastructure Development, Obert Mpofu last Sunday declared that urban tollgates would go ahead despite complaints by motorists. After the 2013 elections, the government, through the ministry of transport and ZINARA mooted setting-up of urban tollgates as a means to generate revenues for development and maintenance of roads in urban areas. The move was ostensibly motivated by challenges faced in raising funds for maintenance and development of roads, and in curbing congestion in urban areas.

With use of tollgates, motorists are charged for their access to roads, with the money that is collected channelled towards road maintenance and development. This is not a new phenomenon in Zimbabwe as tollgates have been in use in the country’s major highways since 2009. Urban tollgates would however be new to the country. In fact, the concept has not been used in most of Africa save for South Africa, where they were introduced as part of the much criticised Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP), popularly known as electronic tolls (e tolls).

To be fair, urban tollgates have been used successfully in cities of developed countries in Europe and North America where they have significantly increased revenues for development and maintenance of roads and related infrastructure. Urban tollgates have also been key to reducing congestion on roads, while  studies also associate them with increased fuel efficiency and time saving, and also reduced air pollution from vehicles.

But historically, it has proven folly to copy ideas from one country and reproduce them in another without considering the differences in socio-economic and political contexts. Thus while acknowledging the benefits urban tollgates have had in developed countries, it is critical to test whether the same would apply in the Zimbabwean context. This would enable a better understanding of whether or not urban toll gates would work in the country. Such an analysis reveals that urban tollgates would not only further burden already struggling citizens, but also cannot solve the problems they are expected to solve.

Photo credit: www.herald.co.zw

First, urban tollgates would further burden poor Zimbabweans, increasing the cost of living at a time when unemployment figures are rising and remuneration figures decreasing. If motorists in urban areas are to pay to access roads, the cost is undoubtedly going to be transferred to the poor through an increase in public transport fares. This would have the negative effect of putting daily public transport beyond the reach of many, further limiting the movement and economic activities of the urban poor, worsening their poverty. Economically, an increase in transport costs could lead to all round increases in commodity prices, further burdening citizens.

It is indeed difficult to fathom how Zimbabwe, with a shrivelling economy which saw at least 10 000 people retrenched in the past two weeks, a country where the few who are employed earn salaries below the poverty datum line and where the majority survive on vending (of which vendors are being driven off the streets) can propose urban tollgates when the same is being resisted in the much more developed economy of South Africa. The available literature suggests that urban tolling would work well where the citizenry can afford and where citizens are willing to comply. In Zimbabwe, motorists simply cannot afford the additional cost of urban tollgates. It is also doubtful those who can afford would be willing since ordinary citizens have been excluded in discussions on the policy, with the decision unilaterally made by the government.

Second, one of the government cited advantages of urban tollgates, that of easing congestion in urban areas, is irrelevant to most urban areas in Zimbabwe that are significantly smaller and less congested than cities in developed countries (perhaps with the exception of Harare). Urban areas such as Bulawayo, Mutare, Gweru and Kadoma do not have congestion problems warranting setting-up of urban tollgates. It is thus disingenuous for the government to argue that urban tolling would lead to decongestion in urban areas. Still on the issue of congestion, it is also questionable whether Zimbabwe can afford the electronic tolling systems that utilise transponders, which are the ones used in rich countries to decongest cities. Toll plazas such as those on the country’s highways would only increase congestion as motorists stop to pay.

Third, and importantly, many of the preconditions cited by studies as necessary for urban tolling to work are lacking in Zimbabwe. These preconditions include availability of alternative routes for those who cannot afford the tolls; improved quality of existing roads to warrant motorist payments; existence of clear road tolling and discount structures; existence of alternative modes of transport for those affected by erection of tollgates; and availability of information and participation of citizens in discussions on introduction of tollgates. In the absence of these preconditions, those who cannot afford will be disadvantaged, motorists will see no logic in paying to access dilapidate roads, and the generality of citizens will not be agreeable on the urban tolling project. All these factors would lead to the project failing to achieve intended results as motorists evade tollgates or fail to cooperate with the system.

All these limitations of the intended are before factoring-in the mismanagement, corruption and poor corporate governance that has been reported to be rampant at ZINARA, which is tasked with managing tollgate funds. ZINARA’s record since introduction of highway tollgates in 2009 raises fears that monies from urban tollgates may be misappropriated. These fears are exacerbated by ZINARA’s failure in the six years of its existence to satisfactorily account for funds collected from the existing tollgates and other taxes. It is not clear where money collected in the past six years has gone to since there are no discernible improvements in the country’s roads, except the Mutare-Plumtree Highway. In fact, roads in most parts of the country continue to deteriorate.

It should be clear then that the conditions necessary to warrant and support use of urban tollgates are lacking in Zimbabwe. The project is simply unsustainable, as it would worsen the plight of already burdened citizens. Zimbabwe’s socio-economic situation, corruption, lack of accountability at ZINARA (as in all other parastatals), poor corporate governance, the relatively small size of urban areas and lack of information and consultation with citizens on the urban tolling project all make urban tollgates unnecessary and undesirable.

Zibusiso Dube is a media and development communication practitioner currently working for the Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association (BPRA) as the Information Manager. He writes in his personal capacity and can be contacted on email:  [email protected]; or Twitter: @zie22

Photo credit re Albert Mugabe: www.sundaymail.co.zw