Toll roads are found in many countries. The way they are funded and operated may differ from country to country. Some of these toll roads are privately owned and operated. Others are owned by the government. Some of the government-owned toll roads are privately operated.
Some toll roads are managed under such systems as the Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) model Private companies build the roads and are given a limited franchise. Ownership is transferred to the government when the franchise expires. Throughout the world, this type of arrangement is common. The BOT system is a fairly new concept which however is gaining ground.
Given that the system requires vehicles to stop or slow down, manual toll collection wastes time and raises motor vehicle operating costs, government should be using the money efficiently to reward citizens by investing in the road network, not ripping them off.
However, in Zimbabwe, tollgate levies are among the most abused public funds. Revenue theft is rampant because it is comparatively easy to steal as has been shown by stories in the media.
According to Zinara spokesman Augustine Moyo, when the first of these “state-of-the-art” structures is completed in September this year, toll fees would be increased.
Moyo claimed higher charges were necessary to generate more revenue for reconstruction of the US$206 million highway, but if history is anything to go by, whatever Zinara is set to earn is likely to be diverted to finance non-road related expenses.
If the “state-of-the-art” structures work well they will ensure toll roads gain popularity, especially if improved technology is introduced. In Zimbabwe, toll roads still require a toll collector and drivers to stop to pay, resulting in delays and congestion in some cases, which defeats the purpose of a toll road in the first place.
However, in other parts of the world technology has improved toll collection to where drivers do not have to stop. The most popular is electronic toll collection. This is usually where some electronic tag on the vehicle denotes which car went through the electronic toll booth and how much the driver should be billed. Another technological advance with toll roads are sensors that can determine how many cars are using the toll road and the time it takes to get from one destination to the next.
This can let drivers know how traffic conditions are on the toll road, and more importantly, in the cases where a toll road uses congestion pricing, determine the toll fee.
Widely used toll roads can financially operate autonomously, so even if the government is having a budget problem and money needs to be saved and funding cut, toll roads, unlike free highways, will still have funding and therefore can still be maintained, improved, and even expanded.
Despite all this, a number of critics still contend that toll roads do not benefit drivers and citizens. One criticism they have is that toll fees are expensive, particularly when people cannot see the benefit by ways of filling potholes and improving the quality of roads.
In 2010, six months after toll gates were introduced, the Department of Roads blew US$2 million buying computer equipment and vehicle repairs in Mashonaland West and Matabeleland.
Without authorisation from parliament, the ministry diverted funds for its own benefit rather than fixing dilapidated roads which have caused many fatal accidents. In July of the same year, the Mid-Year Fiscal Review showed most of the US$15 million intended for nationwide road repairs went to Zanu PF’s political strongholds in Mashonaland West and Central, which includes Zvimba — President Robert Mugabe’s rural home.
Using public funds as a political tool to curry favour with one section of the electorate while short-changing other areas is a clear abuse of power and the root cause of regionalism, but to the corrupt authoritarians running Zimbabwe, it’s a survival strategy.
The recent exemption of 250 chiefs from paying tollgate charges is another tactic by Zanu PF to control traditional leaders ahead of elections. The issue was part of political negotiations which ushered in the inclusive government.
Although the news of chiefs being exempt from paying fees was hailed as a “victory”, the amendment to the Toll Roads Regulations 2012 endorses an unhelpful sense of entitlement and ownership felt by the Chiefs Council.
In an interview with a local weekly, president of the Council of Chiefs Fortune Charumbira declared: “Status of chiefs is not questionable. They are the owners of the country.”
This is misleading. Zimbabwe belongs to all who live in it, but greedy privilege and populist benefits are how inherited and elected leaderships have established their authority in this country.
In a socialist democracy, which Zimbabwe aspires to be, everyone should pay their way, but under a corrupt patronage system, chefs get free-loading and the people foot the bill.
At present, Zinara earns an average of US$17 million a year from toll fees, which ranges from US$1 for an average car to US$5 for haulage trucks. Further hikes would not go down well with over-taxed and impoverished motorists.
In the past, Zinara has been forced to back down after frequent commuters in areas surrounding Harare protested at having to pay each and every time they drove into the capital.
In a separate case, residents in Bulawayo won a rare victory against the government which was ordered to move the toll gate outside the city and stop charging motorists to travel to and from home.
From their inception, toll gates were never popular and although the government initiative was meant to raise funds for road improvement, there is little to show for it.
Three years since their introduction, there are more stories of how public officials abuse funds and how Zinara loses millions through corruption, rather than the actual benefit these concrete pillars have given the country.
Potholes continue to multiply at an alarming rate and US$2 billion is needed to modernise the country’s crumbling road infrastructure, but bad governance and volatile politics, as well as failure to service debts, have been a big deterrent for international lenders like the African Development Bank, which has funded Zimbabwe’s road programmes before.
Improving Zimbabwe’s highways would boost regional trade and foreign investment, particularly at border towns like Beitbridge, the busiest inland point of entry in Sub-Saharan Africa, and Plumtree, but instead, leadership and policy failures have undermined development of infrastructure.
With the elections looming, there is a frightening possibility toll gates fees would be diverted from improving the road network to funding political events. So toll gate fees could be more than just a gripe from motorists, but an issue of public national debate.