Editorial | Highway joy is over
It should come as no surprise to the public that a toll-rate increase has been announced for the North-South Highway. The country was warned when the highway was first opened in March that the reduced rates arrived at after howls of protest were to be reviewed in the future. By now, everyone in Jamaica understands that to 'review' any kind of rate essentially results in an increase.
Justification for the steep increase now being proposed by the toll operators includes the creeping devaluation of the Jamaican dollar and the low level of usage of the highway. The highway is an example of public-private partnership, although the public might not have been privy to the details of the deal, including the level of profit guaranteed to the operators.
It would appear that the operators of the North-South Highway live in a parallel world, which is why they expect that higher tolls will deliver the increased traffic they deem necessary to guarantee them the desired return on their investment.
The fact is that even though the highway is convenient and reduces travel time, these rates are not affordable for a vast majority of motorists. This is why demand for the highway has been lower than expected. So in this equation, the private partners are demanding their profits, while one of the other stakeholders, the motoring public, is left holding the bag. Was this highway a mistake? Did Jamaica make the right deal? Should the Government try to negotiate more favourable terms with the operators to avert more angst?
Taxed with soaring petrol costs, operators of public-passenger vehicles, as well as other business people, have to be content with another layer of hurt on the highway and will no doubt pass the costs on to their clients, whose fixed salaries have been stagnant or have barely moved over many years.
Driven by passions of living like the First World, the idea of sleek new highways criss-crossing the island appealed to many motorists who wanted to experience the feel-good sensation that is derived from drawing comparisons with the developed world.
Now the sobering reality has hit home that it's not free and that these thoroughfares are expensive to build and maintain and that motorists are the repayment source relied on to offset construction costs, according to the arrangements between the Government and the operators of the highway.
After the heady start to highway efficiency, that joy has been extinguished by the demand for higher tolls and the prospects of incremental increases over decades.
And it is not as if the highway's ongoing maintenance is stellar. Earlier this week, several motorists were featured in the media complaining about fallen rocks that had damaged their vehicles while travelling on the North-South Highway.
Since March, a section of the roadway has been impassable after a heavy shower created an avalanche of rocks that spilled on to the roadway. The result is that for many months, motorists have not enjoyed the full benefit of what they have been paying for since that section has been reduced to single-lane traffic. Surely, the operators should be held to some minimum requirement to keep the highway in good repair. It is tantamount to paying for a loaf of bread but receiving only half a loaf.
We believe that the Government should present to the country a comprehensive toll-road agenda so that citizens can get a better understanding of what further benefits have been guaranteed to the operators and how they will affect taxpayers if these targets are not met.