BY PETER MURIMA
Toll roads are in the offing. The government has finally realised that it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. The idea of introducing toll roads has been circulating in relevant government quarters for some time now. This has come after the realisation that public coffers alone cannot sustain the soaring demand for more roads. Whereas China has played a significant role in financing and improving the road network in the country, lessons abound on how to effectively bridge the budget deficit through public private partnerships.
The pay for use arrangement involves investors who put their money in infrastructural projects and recoup their money by charging users market price rate fees over time. This arrangement is effective because it allows the government to meet its infrastructural obligations that it would otherwise have not afforded in a short period of time without debt.
A recent Africa infrastructure report indicated the huge infrastructure budget deficit Kenya faces. Kenya requires approximately over Sh320 billion per year over the next decade to address the deficit. This deficit can only be met by an efficient toll authority that will not only construct and maintain the roads, but regulate traffic efficiently in major towns.
The government has already announced that Kenyans will soon start paying for use of major roads in major towns and highways through toll charges to finance construction and repair of new roads. It has approved over 40 major infrastructure projects to be funded through partnerships with the private sector. These include a second bridge at Nyali in Mombasa and the building of a dual carriage superhighway between Mombasa through Nairobi and to Nakuru. Users of the recently completed Thika superhighway were supposed to be the first to pay toll fees but the implementation was postponed pending an Act of Parliament.
Although many people view toll charges as double taxation from government, there are many benefits that come with toll road charges that not many people notice. “We have to embrace tolling. Look how far it has taken China and India,” Transport secretary Michael Kamau averred.
China is a global leader and a great example of a country that has used toll roads to fund its massive national road network in a very short time. It does indeed have about 70 percent of the world’s total length of tolled roads. No other country has built an Expressway network of such scale in such a short period of time in history.
The establishment of China’s National Trunk Highway System in 1991 was the beginning of road infrastructure miracle in China. Investments were made to construct an Expressway network of nearly 85,000 km, a Class-I highway of 68,000 km, and Class-II highway of 320,000 km. Road tolls were used to help contribute to and to recover all financing costs.
Many economists and transportation experts see toll roads as the inevitable solution to our road transportation problems and predict a lot of benefits if implemented. They argue that apart from financing the projects, it will improve efficiency in managing both existing and future infrastructure projects.
First, Toll roads will reduce traffic congestion by giving less incentive to drivers to use busy roads and provide alternative routes to various destinations. The pay to use arrangement depending on market demand would give less incentive to drivers to use busy roads, or live in congested areas and would resort to use either public transportation, or move to areas closer to work or where they travel most.
Secondly, Toll roads increase connectivity between towns and rural areas and in turn boost the economies of the rural population. By increasing the overall capacity of a region’s road network system, better services are able to be offered through an efficient road transport and thereby opening up remote areas to business and trade with the major towns and cities in the country. By connecting up the whole country and ensuring the full utilization of resources, living expenses will be greatly reduced.
Moreover, they reduce urban sprawl by offering employment opportunities to youths in the country. Toll roads require personnel to collect toll fees and supervise the use of the roads to ensure they are used responsibly. The same tolling centres may be used as check points to ensure there is no overloading and over speeding on the roads. Generally, the accident rate on toll roads is lower than other roads, because the flow of traffic is more even and the use of the road is supervised.
As a country that has greatly benefited from improved road infrastructure from China, Kenya needs to continuously consider the new standards set and emulate the blueprint that China has laid. The Asian giant has made considerable contributions in our roads infrastructure over the recent past, but we cannot expect China to take over the government’s infrastructure obligations.
It is time to embrace toll roads and the government cannot effort to be left behind in this re-emerging strategy of financing road infrastructure. China has proved that this strategy is efficient and workable and the results are there for all and sundry to see.
(Murima is the Chairman of the Motorist Association of Kenya)