Sunday, October 30, 2016

Before FG reintroduces toll plazas in Nigeria

For some time now there have been heated debates on how Nigeria can fix her deplorable road network. Many are of the opinion that government is not doing enough to give Nigeria drivable roads. It is perceived as a double standard for the law to empower Vehicle Inspection Officers to certify vehicles road worthy and impound rickety ones from plying the road while relevant government ministries, departments and agencies are not held responsible for the bad roads which in no small measures contribute to damaging vehicles that drive on such roads. There have been several agencies set up to undertake road maintenance at federal, state and local government levels. I recall the existence of Public Works Department as an agency under Ministry of Works and Transport in the 60s. More recently, we have Federal Road Maintenance Agency (FERMA). Yet, a trip on some Nigerian roads is like embarking on suicide mission given the depth of despoliation on such roads. They are filled with potholes, gullies and failed portions while many bridges on them are near collapse.

Many have attributed the state of disrepair of Nigerian roads to inadequate funding for their maintenance. Up until 2004 when the administration of ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo abolished tolling on Nigerian federal roads and ordered the demolition of the various toll plazas across the country, additional income for road maintenance was accruing to government coffers through them. It was alleged that toll gates were cesspool of corruption as civil servants manning the plazas were involved in all manner of racketeering ranging from issuing fake receipts to motorist to diverting money realised to private pockets. Also, it was a form of gatekeeping for unscrupulous members of security agencies like police and customs who extort money from road users. Toll gates also cause hold-ups and congestions on highways with heavy traffic.

Anyway, since the coming into office of this new administration last year, it has been toying with the idea of reintroducing tolling.  The government got the backing of Nigerian Senate last Tuesday, October 25, 2016 when it passed a motion for the reintroduction of toll gates on federal roads. Senator Suleiman Nazif from Bauchi North moved the motion titled ‘Need for the Re-establishment of Toll Gates on Our Federal Highways,’ during plenary. Nazif said the fees will be used to maintain federal roads and construct deplorable ones. Brilliant idea that is long overdue! However, before all the legislative and administrative paperwork are done, let’s spare some thoughts to audit our past failures in this respect. The big issue is:  Will Nigerians get value for the money they are going to be paying? How will government tame the monster of corruption that led to the scrapping of the policy in 2004?

Not all roads are toll worthy and not all thoroughfares should be tolled. First and foremost my concern in this write-up is with federal highways.  I know for a fact that states and Local Governments are also empowered by law to charge toll on roads under their authority. Even airports charge toll on streets within their operational areas. It would also be recalled that during the tenure of Babatunde Raji Fasola as Governor of Lagos State, he built toll plaza on Lekki Expressway. Road is a social infrastructure and as such ordinarily there should be no charge to using it. However, economic meltdown has compelled a paradigm shift necessitating a modest charge for road usage.

There are different models that can be adopted for road construction and maintenance financing. Three models that I wrote about in my column on this page on November 22, 2015 in an article entitled “Nigeria’s Deplorable Highways” involves public-private-partnership (PPP). A quote from the aforementioned piece will say it better:  “I think it is high time government looked more towards the BOT option. By this I mean the Build, Operate and Transfer whereby private companies are allowed to build the roads using their own funds which they will recoup through tolling over a period of time and thereafter transfer the ownership back to government. Alternatively, government can also go into joint venture with private enterprises to build roads while they also jointly manage it. Their investments will also be recovered through payment of tolls by the road users. Even government can engage private companies to manage its road networks for it. I mean roads that are currently wholly owned by the various tiers of government. In any of these options, there is no way we can do without tolling. To continue to wish that we will use all roads free is to live in delusion.”

The good thing with the reintroduction of toll is the concomitant likelihood of reviving Nigeria’s comatose weigh-bridges. Many a time, I ask myself if there is any enforcement of carriage capacity for many of the articulated vehicles popularly called trailers that ply our roads. Very often you’ll see these long vehicles including Lorries and cars carrying twice the size of what they are designed for. Weigh bridges are meant to checkmate this disobedience. It was heartwarming to read that the Federal Government would reintroduce the use of weigh bridges on the nation’s highways. The Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fasola made the disclosure recently while answering questions from newsmen during the Made in Nigeria Summit 2016 at the Eko Atlantic City in Lagos. He said government has commenced repairs of some of them pursuant to flag-off of enforcement order. Now, the link between the toll plaza and the weigh bridges is that the former accommodates the latter. Many weigh bridges are cited at the toll gates and that makes for easy enforcement of the policy.

As federal government plans to reintroduce tolling, it is imperative to make them fully automated in order to checkmate fraud and avoid congestion which are the twin challenges associated with manual operation. This will involve the procurement of hi-tech, digitised equipment and sensitization of road users on how to use the facility. Security agents that will be deployed there should also mind their business rather than turning them to goldmines for collecting ‘family support’ from   motorists. Proper accountability and transparency in the administration of toll plazas are the irreducible minimum requirement that Federal Government owes Nigerians. In whatever guise we may call it, this is additional taxation and Nigerians will want to see a safe, passable, smooth road network with appropriate traffic signs and lights.