EDITORIAL- How is highway toll spent?
It is very expensive to operate a motor vehicle in Jamaica, what with high fuel costs as well as insurance and maintenance fees. And motorists are expected to dig deeper into their pockets with a toll rate increase looming since the operators of Highway 2000 have proposed various levels of increases.
Looking at it critically, one can see that the toll is simply another layer of taxes on the consumer who was already taxed when he purchased, insured and licensed his vehicle; when he buys petrol; and when he obtained his driver's licence.
Under the Toll Policy Agreement, Trans-Jamaica Highway Limited can apply for an annual tariff adjustment, but the process is not at all transparent as the public can never be sure how the toll dollar is being spent.
For example, how much money will be raised from these increases? What improvements will the new toll rates facilitate? Will the toll administrators leverage this revenue to expand the highway to accommodate even more lanes? What is the capital budget of Trans-Jamaica?
Consider this: If a motorist operating a Class Three vehicle uses the Vineyards Toll Plaza, he will be asked to shell out $890 each time he drives up to the booth; a Class Two vehicle will be charged $470, and a Class One driver will pay $330. These figures are significant to the average motorist who wants to use these facilities on a regular basis, and it is most likely that toll-paying vehicles will be dramatically reduced along Highway 2000.
For while the annual toll increases are designed to keep pace with inflation in the economy, workers have to cut and carve to keep afloat because they have no automatic adjustment for inflation. Most of the revenue from toll roads comes from receipts and perhaps a minor portion from advertising. Trans-Jamaica would, therefore, be using toll revenues as a major part of its money-raising strategy. And if the economic returns are reduced, what will happen in the future? Is it that Government will now have to pick up the tab for operation and maintenance? Could we see the 'un-tolling' of some of these roads in the future?
Financing, building, operating and maintaining these highways is a massive undertaking. There is every indication that Highway 2000 has facilitated ease of inter-island traffic by providing a time-saving option and one that has ultimately affected the economy positively. Besides, using the toll road reduces vehicle emission and contributes to better air quality. But can the country really afford to maintain these costly highways?
It is also vital that the Government explain to the country its toll strategy. Is it the case that each year, consumers are to be saddled with new toll rates without requisite accountability? Will there come a time when the toll will help to improve ailing infrastructure in other areas of the country?
We urge members of the public to become engaged in the conversation about prospective new tolls by submitting comments, observations and questions, as they have been invited to do within the next week. For one thing, the tariff-setting regime should be transparent, and there should be creative ways of easing the burden on regular users of the toll such as loyalty discounts and peak-hour rates.
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