The state of the country’s road network remains bad despite the introduction of the road-user pay principle meant to fund maintenance by the Zimbabwe National Road Authority (Zinara).
This partly explains the surge in road accidents. Many lives have been lost as drivers lose control of their vehicles in attempts to negotiate and avoid potholes.
Human error is another factor in the increase in road carnage particularly by public transport uses.
Recently, the government was reported to be mulling the commissioning of additional 14 tollgates on the country’s highways. The increase would bring total tollgates to 36.
To this end, has the road-user pay principle been effective relative to its initial objectives?
Does Zimbabwe need extra tollgates to rehabilitate its road network or are these simply revenue-generating avenues for the cash-strapped government which then diverts the funds to other uses?
In addressing this issue, one has to first understand the rationale for the introduction of such a principle.
The main source of funding for road infrastructure in developing countries has traditionally comprised direct government allocation, through Public Sector Investment Programmes (PSIP), vehicle licences and fuel levies.
However, due to the inadequacy of funds from these sources, governments have increasingly considered applying the road-user pay principle, which involves motorists paying a fee (toll) for driving on a particular road. Such a principle was only adopted locally in 2009 but has been a global movement as most governments in developed and developing economies seek alternative methods of financing road maintenance.
Potholes and a high fatality rate along the estimated 85 000 km trunk roads provided adequate justification and urgency for introducing the road toll charges.
In addition, toll charges provided the quickest and easiest avenue to raise finance for road maintenance.
Whilst acknowledging the justification for the introduction of toll charges, policymakers did not follow this principle in its entirety. Closer analysis shows that progress in terms of road rehabilitation has not been forthcoming relative to the proceeds that are being generated.
Official data from Zinara estimates that a single tollgate rakes in between US$1,2million and US$1,5million per year.
In 2012, the administration is reported to have collected north of US$45million from tollgates.
At the same time, the state of the road network has not improved significantly despite the resurfacing of Harare-Bulawayo and Harare-Mutare highways.
Rather, it is alleged that some individuals within the state-controlled company and Zimbabwe Revenue Authority, which once managed the revenues, have been enriched.
By this measure, tollgates have not yielded much to the development of the road network. In fact, use of the roads has been a huge cost to motorists through increased vehicle repairs and maintenance costs.
The key objective of toll projects is to achieve increased levels of service in terms of improved safety and efficiency along the road network.
They are also expected to lower travel and vehicle operating costs as well as accident rates.
However, achieving these objectives has not been greatly advanced.
With the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure Development reported to have approved the plan and construction points, it appears there is no going back on the introduction of the 14 additional tollgates.
A senior ministry official said the decision was taken following indications that revenue was not being optimised on particular highways.
Though Zimbabwe has a relatively high vehicle population in Africa, it appears the introduction of further tollgates will add to the burdens motorists have to endure in light of the prevailing economic environment.
According to the Zimbabwean Central Vehicle Registry (CVR), the country has a registered vehicle population of about 850 000 which equates to approximately 57 vehicles per 1 000 people.
The majority of these vehicles are registered in urban areas, where they are kept. Thus with toll charges viewed as steep, Zinara may fail to optimise the revenue they are targeting from highways.
Alternatively, the government may find better ways of generating income whilst at the same time not over-burdening vehicle users.
A better outcome may be enhancing the Zinara system with major focus being put on enhancing transparency. Such a move may be a step in the right direction as leakages through alleged corruption have resulted in lower revenue being declared.
Furthermore, the government may need to tighten its regulation mainly on vehicle licensing as another route of increasing its revenues.
This remains critical in sweating all its sources of revenue generation rather than focussing on bringing on board additional tollgates.
Worth noting is the fact that the government must not see the tolling system as an end to itself as the expected revenues from them are equivalent to a drop in the ocean relative to the costs required to significantly improve the road system.
Estimates from the government show that US$220million is required for road maintenance whilst US$1,2billion is for rehabilitation.
In this global picture, tolling revenues make a marginal contribution hence government must find other ways and financing options.
Overall, Zinara and policymakers should reconsider first the main purpose of the tolling system. This prevents decision-makers from losing focus as the system evolves.
Focussing on revenue-generation alone without ensuring the rehabilitation of the road network does more harm than good to road-users and the nation at large.