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Winning public support for road tolling policy

By Beatrice Nyabira and Christine Murangi

Although the development of road infrastructure in many countries has and continues to be funded through collection of tolls, tolling of roads generally remains unpopular with the public and forms part of an ongoing political and public debate around the world.  

On a global level, the myriad of complaints against tolling ranges from delays and excessive traffic associated with some toll collection systems, to deprivation of property.

Back home, tolls were first introduced for road maintenance in the 1980s and abolished in 1994 in favor of the fuel levy. The legislation providing for imposition of transit toll levies was however not repealed and the Public Roads Toll Act that empowers the Cabinet Secretary in charge of roads to declare any public road as a toll road, has remained in place.  Cabinet also approved a National Road Tolling Policy in 2016, which was the same year when there was huge public outcry against KeNHA billboards on the Southern Bypass announcing the introduction of tolls.  The Government was forced to backtrack, citing the need for a more elaborate framework.

The recent publication of the Public Finance Management (National Toll Fund) Regulations, 2020 by the National Treasury signals the return of tolling, with the proposed Nairobi Expressway and other first mover road PPP projects such as the Nairobi-Nakuru-Mau Summit, Southern Bypass and proposed second Nyali Bridge being the likely targets.

The National Road Tolling Policy has gone some way towards mitigating against the impact of tolling.  It for instance exempts pedestrians and certain vehicles such as bicycles, handcarts, two and three-wheelers (e.g. tuk tuks and motorbikes), military, police, ambulance and fire service vehicles from paying tolls.  The Policy also makes clear that tolls will only be introduced on roads which have been improved relative to their previous standard or that are of a higher quality than untolled roads (for example, roads offering multiple lanes or heightened safety modifications).

Even with these safeguards, there is still evidence to suggest that the public has not completely bought into the issue of tolls.  Luckily, we are not the first country to walk down this slippery path and can borrow important lessons from those who have gone before us.  Case in point has been the suggestion that wherever there is a toll road, the Government should ensure that it also provides a free alternative route.  While good in principle, experience from countries such as South Africa shows this to be an unsustainable model as the economic burden of having two routes serving similar origin and destination far outweighs the benefits.    

Another concern commonly raised is whether the requirement for users to pay tolls amounts to infringement of their constitutional right to free movement.  Again, this has been considered in other jurisdictions such as Chile, where it was ultimately determined that tolls affect the cost of moving from one point to another, but not the freedom to do so.  Road tolls therefore fall into the same category as taxes on fuel or fees for the issuance of driving permits.

That said, the question still remains as to what more needs to be done, if the Government is to win public support for tolling.

The first is to ensure public participation and transparency in implementing the tolling proposals.  Lessons from other jurisdictions show that effective and inclusive public participation is key to the success of a tolling framework. The Government should adopt an all-inclusive approach towards mapping interests, concerns, and potential impacts by taking into account the views of the myriad of stakeholders, who include county authorities, local leaders, affected communities and the public at large.

Secondly, the Government should ensure that it complies with the applicable legal framework, and in particular, public procurement laws, as it goes about implementing tolling. This shall be particularly important when identifying toll road projects, setting tolls and procuring toll operators.

It will also be critical to demonstrate ‘value for money’ whenever a road is proposed to be tolled, if the public is to buy into it. The benefits generated from new or improved facilities such as savings on travel time, lower vehicle operating costs, and reliability and safety benefits must be demonstrable if they are to counter the burden posed by tolls.

Fourth is that tolls should be set at reasonable levels and subject to adjustment based on traffic volume, toll revenues among others.  The level of tolls and limits on the amount and frequency of any future increase should also be set in advance.

Dynamic pricing should also be considered.  Simply put, this means that instead of imposing a flat rate for use of toll roads, toll fees should be calibrated to take into account variable factors such as distance covered and time of travel (i.e. peak or off-peak).  Such a pricing model would give users the ability to select the time they use the toll road and may in turn, spread out traffic and reduce congestion.  Additional interventions such as discounts for frequent users, long-distance travel, multiple trips or for using certain payment techniques e.g. electronic tags, should also be considered.

Finally, efficient and accurate toll collection systems, such as automated electronic systems should be adopted.  If endless traffic jams are caused by long queues of cars waiting in line at toll stations, this is likely to cause dissatisfaction and trigger protests from users.

While these measures will not take away the pinch of paying road tolls, they hopefully will go a long way towards making it more palatable.

The article was featured on the Business Daily on 28 July 2020 and can be accessed here.