Editorial: Beyond the highway toll anger
The applause for the spanking-new highway linking Kingston to Ocho Rios has suddenly died down. This is after the proposed toll fees were revealed in newspaper advertisements this week.
Motorists and stakeholders such as the Truckers Association have voiced strong objection, and vigorous discussions have broken out on social media about what many see as exorbitant prices for motorists, including business persons and commercial interests, travelling on the North-South Highway.
Class One vehicles could pay $1,220, Class Two $2,450, and Class Three $3,700 for one leg. These figures were determined in accordance with the Tolling Policy agreed with the developer, China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), and set out in the concession agreement with the Government.
Welcome to the real world, travelling public. In countries like ours, traffic usage is low and road construction is expensive, considering the treacherous terrain that has to be negotiated. Typically, toll roads help users avoid congestion, minimise stress and risk, while reducing the time spent on the road getting from one point to another. Roadside assistance, proper signage, and escape routes are some of the niceties found on toll roads. There is always a cost attached to convenience. Expensive toll roads provide alternative travel options to free roadways that are maintained by government from general taxation revenue.
In many First World locations where toll roads and bridges are built, studies are first undertaken to establish tolling affordability and to project demand into the future. They then use those studies of traffic and revenue forecasts to guide toll projects and pricing. In many cases, once the proposal is made, a public notice is issued notifying citizens. Included is a draft toll scheme, which citizens are invited to study and make written comments on.
TOLLING OBJECTIVES AND POLICY
Let's, therefore, consider this: Was the motoring public in Jamaica properly briefed and prepared for toll roads? Did the Government thoroughly think through the implications of its tolling objectives and policy? Can these highways generate enough toll revenue to pay off the loans negotiated to build them?In considering the many aspects of these decisions, we also think of the economic impact on those who eke out a living by selling fruits, vegetables, and other products. Many expect to experience a decline in business as potential customers are diverted from their stalls.
The Kingston to May Pen leg of Highway 2000 may provide some answers. Even without the hard numbers, any casual observer will note that the traffic density on this motorway is way down. It's no longer a novelty. And, apparently, more and more motorists now see the toll road as a luxury they can ill-afford.
Based on the experience with this early project, perhaps there should have been some modification to the construction and financial arrangements for the North-South leg.
Members of the public have been asked to comment on the proposed rates for the North-South Highway by Monday. Judging from the robust discussions now taking place, we think there will be many useful suggestions. This newspaper believes that there ought to be greater flexibility in the pricing structure. For example, rates could vary according to the time of day and also on weekends. A major portion of revenue could be earned from advertising, and we believe setting a lower toll for public passenger vehicles could be a boost for the environment by encouraging transit travel or even carpooling.
The bottom line is that someone has to pay for these sleek motorways. Minister of Transport Mike Henry must now take into full consideration the public's views. Of course, he cannot ignore the developers' concerns.