THE reintroduction of toll plazas on the nation’s major highways is one of the ways the Federal Government hopes to generate revenue for the maintenance of the highways, many of which have become deathtraps for travellers. Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, reopened the public discourse on the issue when he appeared before the Senate Committee on the Federal Roads Maintenance Agency (FERMA) recently.
He explained that government has concluded arrangements to construct 38 toll plazas at the same places they were located before they were pulled down by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration in 2004. The facilities, when constructed, will now be managed by the private sector. Proceeds from the toll gates will be used to maintain the highways, while a software capable of monitoring vehicles as they pass through the gates, and enabling the payment of tolls on motorists’ mobile phones, will be designed to ensure the transparency and effectiveness of the system. Fashola added that the government is only awaiting the completion of the roads before the toll gates are reintroduced.
The decision to bring back toll gates is, however, generating mixed reactions. This is not unexpected, as the planned reintroduction of the facilities is coming 13 years after they were demolished. The former president, Obasanjo, ordered the dismantling of the toll gates across the country following an increase in the pump price of fuel to N40 per litre. The administration also cited the poor remittance of the tolls to government and the poor maintenance of the tolled roads. The dismantling of the toll gates cost millions of naira.
The resolve to bring back the toll gates followed the endorsement of the proposal by the Senate in July this year. The Senate had also recommended the setting aside of 0.5 percent of transport fares paid by passengers on inter-state trips to generate funds for the rehabilitation and maintenance of roads in the country.
The government also envisages that about N100 billion will be raised from the issuance of sukuk bond for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of 25 arterial roads. The sukuk bond is said to be a safe, low interest investment issued by the Debt Management Office (DMO) with a 7-year tenor.
Ordinarily, the government’s plan to bring back toll plazas should help to create a pool of funds with which our roads can be kept in good shape. But, there are fears that the tolls will not be used for the intended purpose. This is what informed the dismantling of the facilities in the first place. It is, therefore, important to ensure that all the problems that led to the demolition of the plazas in 2004 are addressed to ensure that we do not have to pull them down again.
Government’s decision, it must be said, makes economic sense. It is only its execution that will likely be problematic, going by our antecedents. Generating additional revenue to maintain the roads is a good idea only if the funds will be properly managed and used for the intended purpose. Nonetheless, the fears of those who do not want the toll gates back should be considered.
Tolling of roads is not a bad idea and it is a common practice in many of the developed countries where it is used to recoup the cost of road construction and maintenance. Unfortunately, this concept that has served other countries well has been abused in Nigeria on the altar of partisan politics. The public concern about the plan is that the new toll gates may go the way of previous one where people reportedly made free money on a daily basis, and government officials with stickers from their offices flagrantly drove through without paying tolls. These are some of the problems which largely defeated the essence of the initiative.
There is also the public worry that the private sector participation may put the plazas in the hands of government patrons. We, therefore, warn that the entire process should be transparent and adhere to due process. The role of government in this process should be that of a regulator, so that the operators will stand a better chance of survival and achieve the set objectives.
Altogether, there should be an adequate and detailed policy to back up the tolling system. If properly implemented, the policy will likely open the transport sector to both local and international investors.
The fact that almost 90 percent of our economic and social activities are run on roads, thereby putting so much pressure on them, indicates that huge funds are required to maintain them to ensure that they remain in motorable condition.