The objective of the multi-phase Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project (GFIP) was, and still is, to develop a sustainable and self-funded upgrade and expansion programme for the main Gauteng freeway network.
The GFIP utilises the user pays principle to collect fees in order to service the repayment of funding raised to develop the project. However, due to low compliance, SANRAL is not currently continuing with the next phases of the project. This presents a problem since transport is a crucial economic activity that has a major impact on our professional and social lives. The upgrade and expansion of the primary Gauteng freeway network is critical if the province is to address traffic congestion, maintain the high quality of life it offers, limit its environmental impact and generate jobs.
SANRAL argues the first phase of the GFIP - carried out between 2008 and 2012 - has saved millions of travel-hours, improved incident management and medical attention at incidents and has unlocked several development opportunities.
There is evidence to back these claims up: According to the 2016 TomTom Traffic Index (TTTI), smart traffic management strategies - including new toll roads, freeway improvements and a new traffic management system, combined with the Gautrain and its integrated bus system - led to a decrease in Johannesburg-Pretoria freeway traffic congestion, despite a 3.2% annual increase in the Johannesburg population.
The Agency further believes that without these improvements, Gauteng traffic would have come to a virtual standstill by now, while developments like Waterfall City and the Menlyn node may have never materialised.
“The GFIP obviously makes economic sense; we needed the highways,” confirms economist Mike Schȕssler from economists.co.za.
“We already need more highways and more roads. We have a lot of cars. If you look at the whole picture, I think the GFIP freeways bought us a big boost for the economy. Without them, the ability to work in Johannesburg and live in Pretoria would be significantly reduced.”
He says while the Gautrain assists with alleviating congestion, it can only do so much.
“Gautrain can't make up the difference; the morning peak commute already takes more than two hours. If we still had two lanes, the morning peak would probably be closer to four hours. And on a Friday and a Monday, when more people tend to use their cars, we could expect a morning peak travel time in excess of five hours,” he argues.
“That would severely reduce the ability of people to travel and goods to be transported. People might have had to move and sell their homes. The bigger picture is that, as a country, South Africa hasn't been building enough roads.”
He says civil construction companies have also been affected by the funding impasse.
“There is not much work available for civil construction companies. They used to get work from SANRAL and other roads agencies like the JRA. Many of these companies have since been liquidated. It is a difficult thing for us to work through,” he says.
“The GFIP still makes economic sense, without a doubt,” agrees Dawie Roodt, economist at the Efficiency Group. “It makes sense on many different levels. Yes it improves transport, but it does a lot of other things as well. The savings in time, for example, are quite significant due to the improvements in efficiencies,” he explains.
“If not for the GFIP, we probably would have seen a Gauteng economy at least 10% smaller than what it is currently. But, there are so many ifs and buts that it is nearly impossible to make an accurate calculation on this.”
“I don't think the economic impact of the funding impasse is hurting us that much, yet, partly because the broader economy is not doing that well at the moment,” he continues.
“It's important not to try to get an answer to that in the current year or next year, it's more important to understand what the cumulative impact is going to be in the coming years. But, that will be too late, because we have to get infrastructure in place before the economy grows and not when it grows.”
Open Road tolling is operated and managed by the Midrand-based Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) company on behalf of SANRAL. According to Coenie Vermaak, CEO of ETC traffic congestion is costing the country around R7-billion annually. “Gauteng needs to continue with road infrastructure projects in order for it to remain the economic powerhouse of Africa,” he says.
Vermaak says there has been a marked decrease in the use of public transport in Gauteng since the mid 90s, while private vehicle ownership has doubled. “Around 220 cars are added to the live vehicle network population every single day in Gauteng.”
He adds that the average speed on the N1 between Johannesburg and Pretoria is expected to decrease from an average 47km/h today to an average of 10km/h by 2037 if no further investments in road infrastructure are made.
“The solution to Gauteng traffic congestion is the continuation of the multi-phase Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project, which will provide sustainable freeway development. The next two phases of the GFIP could also create around 70 000 new job opportunities.
“Roads solve socio-economic challenges and create economic growth,” he continues. “They also attract investors, which South Africa is in desperate need of right now.”
Transport economist Andrew Marsay believes the funding of any further GFIP extensions should be linked to funding of public transport for both formal transport policy and pragmatic reasons.
“This could not be done without a process of consensus building, so that all stakeholders accept that freeways and other transport in the province have to be part of an integrated arrangement. The e-tolling technology and gantries could be used, but the financial deal would need to be revised to include a direct link between revenue on the freeways and investment in public transport.”
Interestingly, in New York in the 1950s/60s, the founding of the Metropolitan Transport Authority occurred only after they were able to integrate highway and public transport funding.
“The Gauteng province is apparently working towards the creation of a transport authority that would bring the metros and transport service providers together. If this can be achieved, it could provide the necessary institutional framework within which the necessary funding consensus could be developed and deployed,” he says.