Protests over high road tolls grow louder

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 February, 2011, 12:00am

Outrageously high expressway tolls are already the source of a rising public outcry on the mainland, and the People's Daily, the Communist Party's main mouthpiece, has joined the fray, publishing seven readers' letters on the topic yesterday.

In one letter, Yuan Xingjia of Lincheng town, under Xinghua in Jiangsu, said he had been charged 120 yuan last autumn for six round-trips on a highway to transport his harvest to downtown Lincheng.

Yuan said farmers should be allowed to pay tolls on a monthly or yearly basis to ease their financial burdens and cut congestion around tollbooths.

Ma Wen, a truck driver from Jingjing county, Hebei, who specialises in transporting construction materials, said he had to overload his vehicle; otherwise, he saw no way of making a profit because of high tolls and fuel costs as well as other expenses.

Ma said he had given up the idea of having his own trucking business because of unbearable fines for overloading, which were as high as 10,000 yuan (HK$11,800), at least 10 times the official fine, though he said drivers could pay 'brokers' in the area to set up a bribe that helped them avoid a large fine.

Most highways on the mainland are built with bank loans from regional governments to mostly state-owned road construction companies. These companies are then allowed to collect tolls to repay the loans and pay for road maintenance.

However, local governments allow them to continue to collect tolls for years after the debt has been repaid. And these cash cows are fraught with irregularities, to the detriment of the wider community.

A 2008 National Audit Office report on toll-road operations in 18 provinces found that 158 toll gates had been set up illegally along highways in 16 provinces and had collected a total of 14.9 billion yuan by the end of 2005.

In a controversial trial last month, Shi Jianfeng , a farmer from Yuzhou, Henan, was sentenced to life imprisonment for evading 3.68 million yuan in tolls over eight months by using counterfeit army plates. Shi is awaiting a retrial, and his case gave a glimpse into the problems of high tolls and the lack of transparency in their collection.

Citing an Inner Mongolia truck driver, the People's Daily reported that for each tonne of coal the driver ferried to Henan last year, tolls and fines were up to 500 yuan, 200 yuan more than the price of the coal.

The People's Daily campaign against high tolls came as mainland academics and regional People's Congress delegates are pushing for reform of highway operations on the mainland.

Even the former director of the National Audit Office, Li Jinhua, admitted some of the tolls collected were unjustifiable, but the law could do little about it.

Peking University law professor Shen Kui dismissed such admissions as pointless, as the potential for legal loopholes in the administration of toll gates still existed.

Shen was among the three professors writing to the municipal government's Development and Reform Commission in Beijing in 2008 for disclosure of information over the operation of the Airport Expressway and its continued need for toll gates. .

'The governments might have to undergo greater openness in terms of information disclosure to address growing public dismay over toll gates operations,' he said.

Law unto themselves

A 2008 report found 158 illegal toll gates had been set up in 16 provinces

By the end of 2005 these toll gates had collected a total of, in yuan: 14.9b