True cost of toll roads

Updated: 2011-10-18 08:02

(China Daily)

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The publication of the mileage of toll highways in 12 provinces and municipalities represents a step forward in the transparency of toll roads. But much more information is needed to overcome the public's doubts about such tolls.

It is four months since the five central government departments - the ministries of transport, finance, and supervision, and the National Development and Reform Commission and the State Council Office for Rectification of Unhealthy Working Styles - jointly launched a campaign to inspect and check such tolls in late June. Since then, only one third of the nation's provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions have disclosed figures about their toll roads and the amount of debt they owe for the construction of these roads.

Strictly speaking, it should not be that difficult to know how much is owed. There should have been a plan and budget for the construction of every highway and expressway. The amount of money to be borrowed and the period of time it would take to pay back the loans with the income from tolls should have been calculated long before the road was built.

No matter how trustworthy the published figures are, that it needs a campaign by five central government departments to reveal the figures suggests that local governments or related companies are reluctant to let the public know them.

It is to be hoped that public opinion can exert enough pressure on governments to disclose the information they are supposed to provide citizens. This is the symbolic significance of the campaign.

As for the 759.3 billion yuan ($118 billion) the 12 localities still owe their creditors for the toll roads, taxpayers are sure to ask where all the money collected at the tollgates in the past decades has gone, as the published figures cover only the past two years.

Even with the detailed spending on road maintenance and operation, it is not difficult to find that the expenditures for both purposes are prohibitively high. In Shanghai, the expenditure in this regard accounts for nearly one third of the total income from tolls and in Beijing they amount to more than one third.

It is not enough to let the public know that toll roads are overloaded with debts in an attempt to justify the tolls. Taxpayers have the right to know detailed information about how much money a particular section of road cost, when it was completed, when it started to collect tolls, how much money it has collected from its tollgates and how the money has been spent.

The debt incurred by toll roads is meaningless without this information and the public want not just a figure, but the why and how behind this figure.

(China Daily 10/18/2011 page8)