Sri Lanka tolls without thought: Backed up traffic and black money

July 18, 2011 (LBO) – There is a reason for applying expertise to major infrastructure projects. The costs of ill-planned actions are very high; and the costs of fixing problems even higher.

The costs of bad planning for Sri Lanka’s first expressway will take two forms: congestion at the exit or entry points (where the tolls will be collected) and money leakage.
Fees for Sri Lanka’s first toll expressway to the south of the island will be decided next week ahead of its opening scheduled for later this month, head of Sri Lanka’s road development authority R W Pemasiri said.

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Pemasiri said tolls would be collected manually through the issue of tickets. The fund will go to the Treasury directly he said, and will be voted back to the road agency. (http://www.lankabusinessonline.com/sri-lanka-to-decide-road-toll-next-week/)

Collection and congestion

Broadly, there are two ways to collect tolls on expressways. The old fashioned way is to collect cash. The other is to deduct the toll from electronic stored-value “cards” in the vehicles.

There are two principal problems that have to be solved. First is to prevent congestion caused by vehicles waiting to pay the toll, negating the principal benefit of the expressway. Second is to prevent leakage or theft of tolls. Some solutions to the first problem exacerbate the second, and vice versa.

The basic problem is that a vehicle has to stop (or at least slow down) to pay the toll. The number of vehicles a lane can carry at 100 kmph and the number it can carry when they are stationary or moving at 5 kmph are fundamentally different.

For the eight lanes of the New Delhi-Gurgaon expressway there are 32 toll gates (and lanes). That is, each driving lane splits into four lanes when the traffic slows down at the toll plaza, then four lanes merge into one again, on the other side. Yet, there were 90 minute waits at the toll plaza on occasion.

And how many toll gates and lanes are there on the four-lane Southern Expressway? No extra lanes. No toll gates. No toll plaza, except on the State Engineering Corporation website.

And how are they going to collect the tolls: “manually through the use of tickets.” Standing in the rain, like at a parking lot?

Let’s be thankful for small mercies. They’re not going to be making change at the exits. The vehicle stops; the ticket is handed over; the boom is lifted; the vehicle proceeds. This will cause congestion; but not as much as if change were being made and receipts issued.

Another news report says the toll will be LKR 3 per km. So one has to buy a ticket to one’s destination before getting on to the expressway, like when getting on a bus? So the congestion is shifted from exit to entry point? And perhaps, one has to stop and show the ticket at the entry ramp? I can see the minutes adding up and the time advantage of taking the expressway eroding.

It’s sad to have to speculate like this, but is there an alternative, given the lack of information?

Toll without thought

When the consultants provided by the Asian Development Bank were available, tolling was not on the agenda. It was to be a free expressway. That is why there are no extra lanes at the entry and exit points. It is not that toll roads were not discussed in the public arena as long as five years ago: http://www.lankabusinessonline.com/choices-toll-or-troll/

Then someone floated the toll idea. No wave of protest. Now, with just months to go to the much-delayed opening, a decision seems to have been made to charge tolls. Tolls require toll plazas? So tell the State Engineering Corporation to build them, along with offices for the army of officials who will live off the toll. Adding extra lanes at the entry and exit points? Oops, we forgot.

Electronic tolling? It’s only in India that they assemble the best brains in the land, headed by Nandan Nilekani, to set standards and design compatible systems http://profit.ndtv.com/news/show/nilekani-to-soon-announce-new-toll-collection-technology-79418. Here we do tickets even if drivers have to wait in line for as long as it takes to get to Matara. E Sri Lanka? Oops, we did not think.

Solutions

We should give serious thought to electronic tolling, even though it is impossible to implement at short notice. A traditional staffed toll lane typically processes 300- 350 vehicles per hour whereas an electronic toll lane can handle from 1,000 vehicles per hour in a dedicated toll lane within a conventional toll plaza and even as high as 1,800 vehicles per hour in an open highway configuration.

Electronic tolling reduces the possibilities of revenue leakage that is almost certain to occur if cash is collected. That would feed the black economy with multifarious bad effects on society.

In the short term (which is all that we have given the failure to plan), a simplified standard payment system such as that which is operational in Taiwan based on the use of coupons is the best option.

In Taiwan, a single standard toll is charged at every toll plaza, e.g., USD 1.15 for cars. This feature helps vehicles pass through more quickly; with the help of “No Change” lanes which accept standard coupons that can be conveniently purchased in advance at post offices, petrol stations and toll plazas. These coupons have the same denomination as the standard toll.

This will involve multiple payments (and associated delays) for a vehicle going the full distance. But it is better than the alternatives. The Taiwan solution can be replaced by an electronic system within a year or two which is required for proper planning and implementation.

There is an aphorism that is most appropriate for the Southern Expressway: Denagena giyoth Kataragama. Nodena giyoth ataramaga.

Looks like we won’t make it to Kataragama. But if we ask the right directions, we might.

Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the ‘Choices’ category.