The Toll rip-off

While this month’s chicane may seem a bit off topic in a country where there is no toll charge to use a road, it is the season for travel and so many of us will actually have paid a toll in these months that you’ll forgive me for taking up the space. So, what’s that I hear you ask, “Why are you ranting about paying a toll fee?”

That’s a very good question, considering that the model for private (or indeed government masquerading as private enterprise) participation in infrastructure development has been set for longer than cars existed. We take toll roads, or bridges or tunnels for that matter because they make life easier. These ticketed pathways save us fuel, time or money. And the advantage is quantifiable. After all isn’t the Suez Canal an example of a tollway that does exactly this – saving ships from the bother of sailing around the cape? It’s that win-win scenario that invokes a huge capital outlay in canal digging, bridge building and road laying with the premise of being able to offer users a measurable advantage.

Which brings me to my recent tryst with the genre. In India, toll roads don’t necessarily offer the same clear-cut formula. I live on the outskirts of Mumbai and have to pay toll to enter the city, no matter which road or route I take. There is no ‘free’ path in. So the toll is not being charged for an advantage but as a tax.

Then take the case of the toll highway. You can drive to the nearby city of Pune by the expressway on which you pay a toll. Or you could drive there by means of the government provided highway, on which you pay the same toll. It used to be free but then so many drivers preferred using the government road that the authorities stepped in to level the playing field. So now you pay the same amount to travel by either the good road or the bad. Guess which one you would take?

On a recent long distance drive down the western side of India, we travelled almost 2,000kms on a combination of toll roads and regular state highways. Almost across the board, the toll roads were still being built, with construction phases taking away from the speed that could have been attained. And there was no logical reason for the location of the tollgates. There were even stretches of regular highway that had tollgates on them because some day in the future the road would be made. At the same time state level highways, often four-laned, would take us on from there. Good driving surfaces, scenic routes and a better connect with towns along the way were a definite bonus.

Yes, India remains a country where connections or corruption can get you a lifelong cash cow in the guise of a toll concession. More often than not, this isn’t even audited. But, I feel that it has reached a level where the public will rebel at paying another toll. For instance, on my recent drive, if you calculate the ratios of fuel spend to toll paid over the toll road distance – it is under 3:1. If a non-toll road existed, the sum would not have risen to over four. There is almost no cost benefit – the only benefit is time saved, as of now.

India is reportedly about to embark on a multi-billion dollar investment in growing the national level highway network, again premised on a toll payment route. Unless world-class connectivity results from this, this form of crony capitalism is the stuff that will set off resentment around the country.

Should India, for instance, be looking at the Dubai model of toll gates, where the money is invested by the government is high quality roads and bridges and the toll charges are paid back into their coffers? That’s a low strife model, because equally good roads are still available as free use paths although it would still take more time to travel them. Or should the model be the German one, where the autobahns are part of the nation’s infrastructure that powers the growth of economy, trade and commerce and hence pays off for itself?

So you see, there are no easy answers. As a road user, I just know that I want to feel as if I have benefited whenever I pay a toll.

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