Staff Writer

A mooted plan by the Road Fund Administration (RFA) to introduce toll booths on certain national roads in Namibia already faces resistance from political parties and national unions.

This comes as RFA stated that a feasibility study finalised a few months ago found charging tolls on certain road sections in Namibia is feasible and viable. It claims that these new revenues would generate approximately N$3.9 billion over a five-year period.

This supposed finding is a direct contradiction the 2019 finding by former Minister of Finance and current Minister of Agriculture, Water and Land Reform, Calle Schlettwein who said road tolls would not be viable for the Namibian economy, and that earlier studies revealed that tolls would be a burden to the economy and to road users.

No explanation of the two different conclusions by the same government over the same issue was offered.

Popular Democratic Movement (PDM) leader, McHenry Venaani, said his party “reject a toll system in Namibia” because “we do not think a thorough study has been done on this”.

Venaani said if the government wants to generate revenue “they must look at other areas of deliberations” and “not punish people with tolling”. He stressed that tolling will be a burden to citizens of an already suffering economy due to the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The RFA is only addressing the revenue side of things but not the consumer side or to be able to think that there must be a way where consumers have a better deal as opposed to them to be overcharged control,” the official opposition party leader told the Windhoek Observer.

He also added that he has “serious doubts that the government will give the required support” that the RFA is looking for, pointing out that neighbouring South Africa is in an economic recession. One of the main culprits exacerbating the financial crisis is road tolls.

The RFA is currently seeking support for its tolling policy plan from the government.

Landless People’s Movement (LPM) deputy leader Henny Seibeb said his party is not supportive of toll roads mainly because most Namibians are unemployed and struggle to make ends meet. These people would struggle to pay tolls as they travel to visit home or do business.

“The already few taxpayers are taking a huge burden and tolling will further affect their quality of life and living standards heavily as the same middle class send remittances to rural folks for support,” he said.

“It will be too much of a burden on taxpayers for now and besides, we do not have high level infrastructure to maintain toll roads. Government must stop copy-and-paste policies from other countries that don’t have resonance with our infrastructure development aims just yet.”

The ruling party Swapo refused to comment on the RFA’s toll roads matter as they said “they need an agenda” to pronounce themselves on the issue.

“We did not resolve on the matter because as a central committee we have to have an agenda, so, that’s why I cannot speak on this issue as an individual,” said Lineekela Dumeni, the Swapo Party Youth League (SPYL) secretary for information, publicity and mobilisation.

Economical analyst, Klaus Schade, specified that RFA is coming under pressure from various angles such as more fuel-efficient vehicles result in lower fuel levies and that road network upgrading from sandy tracks to gravel roads to bitumen standards increases maintenance costs.

“Increased mobility could mitigate the effect of more fuel-efficient vehicles but will not solve the overall financing challenges. Currently motorists contribute about N$488 million in the form of fuel levies. Hence, the additional N$800 million for just a few selected roads could be a significant burden on commercial and private road users. The costs and modalities of the introduction of the toll system has not been explained in detail. It is also not known whether these are net revenue – meaning toll fees minus operating expenditure such as personnel expenditure – or gross revenue,” Schade said.

The economical analyst further explained that it is also not known whether RFA has conducted feasibility studies into any alternative financing models, which would be important to weigh the costs and benefits of these different options.

“One option that Namibia would need to pursue in earnest is to promote intermodal transport and move more goods and passengers on the rail system. This would reduce the heavy traffic on our roads substantially and hence, reduce maintenance costs – and most likely also road traffic accidents. Likewise, reliable speedy rail passenger services to the north could reduce the number of minibuses and private vehicles on our roads and again lower maintenance costs,” he said.

Various national unions also weighed in, strongly condemning the RFA’s initiative regarding toll system.

NUNW Secretary-general, Job Munyaro, told the Windhoek Observer that he does not support tolls roads and cautioned that, “these people (the RFA) should know when enough is enough. That is pure exploitation and it is not going contribute to the development of this country,” he said.

Munyaro added that the RFA is only thinking about “their pockets and do not envision what disruption toll roads will cause to the transport system” and how negatively it will affect those who cannot afford toll fees.

Namibia Transport and Taxi Union (NTTU) president, Werner Januarie, said tolling of roads in Namibia is economically not viable for such a small population and that “it is totally not acceptable as it pertains exorbitant fees”.

“We must have an understanding that it is not something that we need to prioritise right now because that is definitely going to shift the fares for the transport system plus toll roads will heavily affect the poor as tolls will increase exorbitantly.”

The RFA in its defence argues that at present, rehabilitation costs are around N$6.1 million per kilometre and that the actual requirement is to rehabilitate 200 km of roads annually.

“The RFA cannot afford such rehabilitation with its current revenue base and if nothing is done about it, then the country will lose 900 km of roads and an asset worth N$10 billion in the near future. This would compromise our fickle economy even further, as 73 percent of our tourists enter our country by road, 63 percent of our imports enter by road and 22 percent of our exports leave by road, whilst supporting 24,700 formal and 10,700 informal jobs,” said Namene Kalili, RFA’s Executive Manager for Programme and Policy Advice.

“At this stage, we know that most vehicle manufacturers will produce more electric vehicles than internal combustion engine vehicles by 2023, at which point we expect 20,000 electric vehicles to enter our country annually and by 2030, we expect all vehicles to be electric. Thus, we are in a race against time to restructure our current road maintenance model to accommodate electric vehicles before the fuel levy become redundant,” Kalili said.

He added that “current deterioration models show that for the current level of road maintenance at N$2.7 billion, the road user needs to fork out an additional N$3.9 billion in damages to their private vehicles due to the poor road condition”.

“This amounts to N$6.6 billion cost to the road user. If road maintenance funding can be increased to N$4 billion annually, then roads can be restored to their original design specifications.”

RFA maintains that Zambia has a successful tolling program and that Zimbabwe which has a motor vehicle population of 1.4 million according to the Zimbabwe National Roads Administration (ZINARA) latest figures, has been tolling for decades as an example to justify their cause.

“Tolling is one of many options the RFA is exploring to close the maintenance funding gap. Globally we are seeing more and more countries moving towards tolling. Most countries that have better roads and higher road connectivity than Namibia have toll roads, to supplement road maintenance funding. And if we want to maintain the quality and connectivity of our roads, we will have to develop new charging mechanisms,” Kalili added.

According to UN data, Zimbabwe’s 2020 population is estimated at 14.8 million people, compared to Namibia’s 2020 population which is estimated at 2.5 million.