Tolls take a heavy toll on truck owners
Zhang Gaoxing, owner of a truck inHenan province, and his wife tried to commit suicide by drinking pesticide on Nov 24 after local road management authorities imposed fine on them for overload. The woman survived but her husband died.
This is the second suicide attempt by a truck owner in a year. In November 2013, another truck owner inHenan attempted to kill herself by drinking pesticide after being heavily fined for overload. Investigations by local authorities into last year’s incident revealed the fine was imposed arbitrarily. Local authorities are still investigating the latest incident, but people have reacted strongly against the excessive toll and other road charges imposed by road management authorities.
For a better understanding of the issue, we need to take a look at the development of China’s expressway network. China boasts the world’s longest expressway network in terms of mileage. By the end of last year, its expressways exceeded 100,000 kilometers, although the first expressway was built only in 1988.
Behind the exponential expansion of China’s expressway network is the special financing mechanism for infrastructure construction. Since huge amounts of capital are needed to build expressways, the government has introduced a public-private partnership model, allowing companies to take loans from banks to build expressways and repay their debts through toll collection.
China has set a cap of at least 25 years for withdrawal of toll on an expressway. In the western region, the cap can be extended to 30 years. This model would have been acceptable if the toll collection was transparent and rule-based. That is to say, once the operating companies have collected enough tolls to cover their investment and operational costs, and made adequate profits after repaying their loans, toll collection should stop. But that is not the case. Many operators have continued to collect tolls even long after recovering their costs and making profits, pushing up the cost of driving.
For example, the Guangzhou-Shenzhen Expressway, which started collecting toll in 1997, cost 12.2 billion yuan ($1.98 billion) to build. And although the toll collection between 2002 and 2009 alone exceeded 24.2 billion yuan, the operator continues to collect tolls ignoring public protests.
Drivers have been criticizing the high toll charges for a long time. Even Geng Shuhai, a senior National Development and Reform Commission official, said at a 2011 forum that expressway tolls were so high that the charges accounted for onethird of the cost of transport companies. If fines for overload are taken into account, they could reach half of the transport companies’ operating costs, saidHou Hanping, a logistics expert with Beijing Jiaotong University.
Moreover, tolls and fines for overload are often arbitrary. In last year’s attempted suicide case, investigating officials concluded the fine imposed was not legitimate. According to a 2006 audit by the National Audit Office, 16 of the 18 provinces and municipalities under scrutiny had set up 158 unlawful tollgates and collected nearly 15 billion yuan in illegal toll charges.
Overloaded vehicles on expressways are a serious problem in China. The practice continues despite heavy fines and repeated national campaigns initiated by regulators to put it under control. People initially criticized cargo truck owners for their greed and profit-first mentality only to realize later that the high expressway tolls could make long-distance cargo transportation unprofitable if truck owners did not overload. But by overloading their vehicles, truck owners face the risk of being fined. And to avoid the heavy fines, some of them bribe expressway operators, leading to corruption.
Returning to the Nov 24 incident, the truck owner couple’s suicide attempt was not the proper way of protesting against illegal fines. Having said that, one has to admit that there is no reason to continue imposing dubious heavy expressway surcharges on drivers.
Policymakers must reform the expressway toll collection regime after proper consultation with transport companies and vehicle owners. Or else, more people like theHenan couple may resort to desperate means to voice their protest against high toll charges. The author is a senior writer with China Daily. email@example.com.