Expressway boom taking its toll on motorists

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 May, 2010, 12:00am

The mainland boasts the world's longest toll road network, with charges that rank among the most dubious thanks to illegal toll gates and the frequent flipping of licences by road builders eager to prolong toll terms.

The expressway boom started more than 15 years ago and the mainland's network now ranks second only to the United States. However, most of the interstate highways in America are free of charge, while mainland motorists have to pay their way.

According to state media reports, there are 140,000 kilometres of toll roads globally, with the mainland home to more than 70 per cent - 100,000 kilometres. In 2008, following a survey of 86,800 kilometres of toll roads in 18 provincial-level regions, the National Audit Office found illegal highway tolls had cost mainland motorists at least 23.1 billion yuan (HK$26.3 billion). By the end of 2005, it said, 14.9 billion yuan had been collected by 158 illegal toll gates, with another 8.2 billion yuan raked in from illegal toll increases. Xinhua reported that the regions surveyed had an average of one toll station for every 30 kilometres of expressway.

Guangdong province, which kicked off the expressway boom, has 3,000 kilometres of expressways, the mainland's longest and densest network. It was the first province to allow the builders of high-quality roads to access bank credit and then charge motorists to repay loans. Last year, Guangdong provincial Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference delegate Huang Chenguang tabled a proposal calling for the number of toll gates to be reduced. He backed up his proposal with the example of the 198-kilometre expressway from Heyuan to Guangzhou. Huang said a motorist would typically have to pass through seven toll gates on the journey, five of them within Guangzhou. He said that in the 25 kilometres starting from Luogang , on Guangzhou's outskirts, to Huocunnan, Guangdan, Huangpu and Beierhuan, a motorist would have to stop five times to pay tolls, seriously reducing the efficiency of the expressway. 'That's one toll gate on every 5 kilometres of road, the highest density in the world,' Huang said.

In response, the provincial transport department said it had begun to minimise the number of times cars have to stop for gates by combining Guangdong's expressways, based on geographical zones. It relied on an electronic charging network that would collect tolls based on traffic flow and redistributing income to various operators to help ensure smoother traffic flow. However, little progress has been made, even a year later after Huang's complaint.

Zhong Zengquan, of the department's fee-collection division, said this was largely because few road owners trusted that the electronic toll charging network would record their earnings accurately. Despite that, he said, administrative measures were being put in place to speed up implementation of the system.

Dr Lin Kun-chin, a lecturer at King's China Institute at King's College London, in a recent paper, 'The Development of Road Networks in China', wrote: 'Highways would seem indispensable as a developmental tool for local officials keen on bringing the benefits of the market economy into remote regions of their jurisdiction. At the same time, highway projects are also breeding grounds for corruption and oppressive taxation, environmental movements, grass-roots protests, land-use disputes, and violent confrontation between local states and societal groups.'

Lin said about 45 per cent of the fund-raising sources for Chinese highways built in the mid-2000s came from fees and charges. Another 43 per cent came from domestic loans including those from the China Development Bank and state-owned commercial banks and market borrowing by central and provincial government road agencies.

By the end of 2005, the Guangdong transport department gave a compelling example of just how far the greed of expressway operators could go. Thirty-three of the 74 toll gates in one province got permission to collect tolls for more than 30 years to repay loans. It did not name the province but said six of the toll gates enjoyed terms of more than 100 years, with the one in Heyuan's Jiangmian having a 756-year lifespan.

Two years ago, the Economic Observer, said toll terms had been extended because operators were allowed to flip licence rights. From 1991 to 1999, 52 transfers of toll concession rights took place in Guangdong, with 34 transferred from government-owned toll roads to private companies, it said.

In October 2008, Beijing banned the transfer of toll road concession rights. It also criticised local governments for burdening the public with toll road building sprees in violation of national guidelines stipulating that free highways comprise the bulk of the road system. The National Audit Office said 35 per cent of the land used to build toll roads was obtained through unauthorised procedures.

The whole mess has seen central and local government departments accused of forgoing their primary roles as providers of public services and of abusing their powers in order to fleece the people.

Strict and effective government measures are needed to control the problem and keep the nation's traffic flowing.