For whom does the road toll greedily?
China’s road management authorities have claimed they spent as much as 431.2 billion yuan ($69 billion) on the building, operation and maintenance of expressways, while collecting 365.2 billion yuan in tolls in 2013, meaning there was a huge deficit of 66 billion yuan.
TheMinistry of Transport said that 314.7 billion yuan has been used to pay for bank loans, 39 billion yuan for maintenance while 45.7 billion yuan was spent on operational and managerial costs. “Other expenditures” were 10.4 billion, the ministry said.
It is obvious that the ministry has released the data not only to satisfy the public’s right to know, but to quell the rising public ire over the continuing collection of tolls for expressways long after their construction costs are supposed to have been recovered.
According to China’s road management regulations, State-funded highways can collect tolls for 15 years after the start of their operation. Those in the less-developed central and western regions can extend the period by five years.
As operation of a large number of expressways was started in the 1990s, their toll-collecting duration has expired or is soon to expire. However, some provincial authorities have allowed the charging of tolls to continue.
TheHebei section of the Beijing-Shijiazhuang Expressway, for example, has got the go-ahead from the provincial authorities to continue to collect tolls even though drivers have been paying to use the road since 1993.
Other provinces are also considering prolonging the collection of tolls on some of their expressways when the supposed expiry date draws near.
Officials have justified the continued fees by claiming that investments for the building and operation of those roads have not yet been recovered, so it is reasonable to continue charging drivers.
While at first glance, theMinistry of Transport data seem to justify their stance, a closer look at the data might show otherwise.
For example, in 2013, the managerial costs exceeded that of road operation, which is difficult to understand, and many netizens have questioned whether the road companies are overstaffed and this is a core reason behind the bloated management costs.
The public questioning is not without cause. In a 2008 audit report released by theNational Audit Office, it was found that a toll-collection agency in Central China’sHubei province budgeted to have 30 people in the payroll, but it actually employed 144 people. Likewise, a Shanxi road management agency was supposed to have 27 people on the payroll, but it was paying 156 people.
The auditing report also noted that the pay for these road managers was much higher than market levels in some places. Moreover, it said more irregularities, such as the bloating of debts and illegal exemption of toll charges, had been found, which also pushed up expenditures and reduced revenues.
This time, it is not clear yet whether the deficit has been caused by overstaffing, inflated salaries or other irregularities. So the ministry should disclose more detailed information regarding how many road managers it has hired and how much they have been paid, to respect the public’s right to know.
Regarding the “other expenditures”, the ministry also needs to clarify what these entail, so that the public can scrutinize whether there are any abnormal expenditures.
And even if the balance sheet provided by the ministry turns out to be all above board, the deficit should not be used to justify the prolonged charging of the expressway toll charges.
When a road starts operation with an explicitly set duration for collecting the fees, then it constitutes a de facto contract between the road management authorities and road users. The prolonging of the charges violates this contract and those doing so should be put under strict public scrutiny.
In reality, car users have little say in the decision-making process. This is against the spirit of rule of lawand it is high time the transport authorities address the problem and show respect to the public. If they lean toward the commercial interests involved in road management, then it will risk triggering more public anger. The author is a senior writer with China Daily. firstname.lastname@example.org