The government website quotes Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe as saying at his meeting with Business Unity SA on Friday that: "Our decision to adopt the user-pays principle is not only about funding; it is about decongesting the freeways."
The deputy president has, perhaps unwittingly, drawn attention to an aspect of e-tolling that has largely been played down by roads agency Sanral and others. Their emphasis has been on the fact that the tolls are intended to pay for construction and maintenance costs.
However, one of the aims of e-tolling is that it should provide a "demand management" tool.
As road congestion grows, tolls, especially peak-period charges, can be adjusted to regulate demand. If this price mechanism is not in place - if, for example, it is replaced by a fuel levy - road usage in the Gauteng city region will increase until we reach a stage where road space is rationed by congestion rather than price. There will then be demands for yet more road expansion.
Quite apart from issues of costs and funding, cities around the world have found that building more urban roads is a self-defeating strategy. In his budget vote speech on June 5, Gauteng transport MEC Ismail Vadi said: "There is an accepted view among transport planners internationally that we cannot build ourselves out of traffic gridlocks on our roads and freeways."
One of the reasons the government has found it difficult to counter the arguments against e-tolling is that there are few acceptable alternatives to the use of the (vastly improved) Gauteng freeways.
For car users, the alternative must be a quality integrated public transport system. The only improvements in Gauteng public transport since the freeway improvement project was formally announced in 2008 have been the Gautrain - a big step - and a single bus rapid transit line from Soweto to the Johannesburg CBD. Mr Vadi has commissioned a 25-year integrated transport master plan for the province. When he announced it a year ago, he made it clear that the planners were being told to come up with a five-year plan which, as he told Business Day, "we can begin to operationalise immediately". That interim plan is expected in the next few weeks.
The alternative for freight traffic is to move at least long-distance operations from the freeways to rail. That will need a distinctly jacked-up Transnet Freight Rail service. Some steps have already been taken (for example, timetabled freight trains). We hope that over the next five years Transnet can make further significant improvements in its services.
This five-year time frame offers a possible strategy for Mr Motlanthe and his committee of ministers. The e-tolling system could be suspended for those five years and replaced by some other form of broadly accepted funding such as a fuel levy. The user-pays principle could be revisited once the improved passenger and freight alternatives have been made available. In the interim, the freeways would once again have gradually become congested and the alternatives, even if still not the first choice, would be viewed as at least acceptable.