Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, at the end of the Federal Executive Council meeting last week, announced that the government is set to reintroduce toll collection on some selected federal highways across the country. He said only 14.3 percent of the entire 35,000 kilometres of federal roads that are dual carriage highways will be eligible for tolling with vehicles paying between N200 and N500 per trip depending on their make while diplomatic, military, para-military as well as tricycles and motorcycles will be exempted from toll payments.
Fashola explained that the open tolling system to be introduced will not commence until the affected roads are motorable while agreements as to how the plazas will be operated will have to be negotiated with relevant government agencies.
We recall that 18 years ago, precisely in 2003, the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo dismantled all toll plazas on federal roads across the country. The administration predicated its action on widespread allegations of corruption and exploitation that trailed the operations of the toll gates. Though the gates were largely concessional, it was alleged that the operators blatantly refused to meet their contractual agreement with the government.
There were also speculations that the removal of the toll gates by the Obasanjo government was to pave way for an increase in fuel pump price which would have faced stiff opposition if the toll payments were still in place. This school of thought was proved right because the demolition of the toll gates was immediately followed with a fuel price rise.
Another argument generated by that exercise was that the cost of demolishing the plazas was higher than the cost of construction. It was advocated that the structures should have been converted to other uses such as security posts in order to check crime and criminality on the highways.
Expectedly, the return of toll gates has continued to generate mixed reactions among Nigerians. Some have contended that with the harsh economic climate presently, the move should be suspended till the economy improves as the toll payments will definitely add more burden to the already harangued masses.
Another reality is that prices of goods and services will further increase when this policy is operational. For instance, if a slight increase in fuel price could push up the cost of transportation with a concomitant ripple effect on the cost of goods and services, then the consequences of toll payments of N150 for commercial buses per trip can be better imagined. There’s no contending the fact that commercial vehicles will increase their fares beyond proportion to accommodate the toll fares they will be paying especially those that pass through three to four toll gates before getting to their destinations. Unfortunately, governments and citizens will be helpless when that happens as there are no measures in place to protect hapless commuters from such exploitation.
Remarkably, the government said the roads will be motorable before the tolls can be effective. This newspaper expects then that the government will expedite action on the construction of these roads before the policy begins. We are wont to believe that this is not a political statement. We don’t expect to see the tolls spring up overnight before the government keeps to its end of the promise to make the roads pliable.
Regrettably, in our opinion, the condition of most of the major federal highways in the country at the moment is nothing to write home about, no thanks to lack of maintenance and, in some cases, the use of substandard materials during construction.
It is also our considered opinion that the bad roads contribute significantly to the spike in kidnappings and armed robbery on the highways. Reports by the Federal Road Safety Commission, FRSC, Nigeria Bureau of Statistics, NBS, also indicate that 41,257 deaths were recorded on the highways in 97 months.
This makes the repair of these highways a matter for urgent consideration. We are not unaware that funds are definitely needed to maintain the roads and bring them back to appreciable positions before tolling. We also want to remind the government that the issues that led to the dismantling of the tolls in the first place have not been sufficiently resolved. Corruption is still pervasive in the land.
Be that as it may, we suggest that when the toll gates come into effect, they should be automated to reduce incidences of corruption and extortion from unscrupulous officials. We also insist that apart from tricycles and motorcycles, no vehicles should be exempted from paying the tolls. Siren blowing government officials should not be allowed to abuse the process. We insist that no official of government, no matter how highly placed, should be exempted. Similarly, the money realized from the tolls should go into what it is meant for- continuous maintenance of the roads!