For whom does the road toll greed­ily?

China Daily (Canada) - - COMMENT -

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. xinzhim­ing@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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