Tolls take a heavy toll on truck own­ers

China Daily (Canada) - - COMMENT -

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. xinzhim­ing@chi­nadaily.com.cn.

LUO JIE / CHINA DAILY

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