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Bumps ahead: We need to go slow on new-found obsession with toll roads

Toll station under construction along the Nairobi expressway. [David Njaaga, Standard]

A curious news item that a law on tolls is holding the Sh160 billion Nairobi-Mau Summit Road recently caught my attention.

My interpretation is that the contractor wants to be assured that they will be allowed to collect toll on the road.

A precedence has already been set with the Nairobi expressway, with the Chinese contractor even getting protection from currency fluctuations.

One hopes that the road, which has now been fenced in some sections will have overpasses or underpasses for pedestrians; the majority of Kenyans do not own cars. China is a leader in toll roads. I recall paying toll on a visit to Beijing in 2018.  

What was surprising about the news item was that tolls will be paid on both new and old roads if the Public Finance Management (National Road Toll Fund) Regulations, 2021 get parliamentary approval.

  Initially, tolling was only for the new roads built through public-private partnerships (IPPs) so that investors could recoup their money. But why this obsession with tolls?  

I recall toll stations at Gilgil and another near Ruiru. They would cause long traffic jams, defeating the purpose of having good roads, which is to make transport more efficient.  

Tolls were abandoned and the fuel levy instituted, which is much easier to collect.

Toll station under construction along the Nairobi expressway. [David Njaaga, Standard]

The only tolls that were never removed are the policemen; they still stop matatus to collect their “toll” during the day. You hardly find policemen on the roads at night. The return of tolls is driven by money. 

Tolls are a great source of revenue. Suppose Kenya has two million registered cars. Say half of them pay a daily toll of Sh100 for five days a week.

This amounts to Sh2 billion a month or 24 billion a year. The expressway would pay itself in three years. Very good business, right?! 

The only other related and profitable business is parking. Noted how counties have been active building parking bays? Through tolls, the concept of public goods is being diluted by the invisible hand of the market.

One could argue the profit motive will lead to more roads. But there is a problem; investors will only focus on roads with high traffic and ignore outlying areas like my village, which has not seen a tarmacked road 59 years since independence. I will not disclose its name for security reasons.  

If the tolls were collected by the government, it could use the money to subside the building of roads in such areas.

But it is unlikely private investors will do that. Why else do you find roads being swept in Nairobi when some parts of the country do not even have roads, to begin with? 

It is also possible that toll roads could discourage maintenance of “non-profitable” roads or the building of new roads that would offer competition. Globally, motorists have alternatives to toll roads.

It’s assumed that one would pay a toll because of perceived higher returns in time saved. Let’s go back to the Nairobi-Mau Summit Road. Shall we have a parallel well-maintained road to the existing one in case one does not want to pay the toll? Noted that Mombasa Road remains despite the expressway?  

Toll station under construction near JKIA. [David Gichuru, Standard]

Have we thought of the unintended consequences of toll roads? Will they extend the class divide in the country?

We now have private hospitals, schools and now private roads. Think of it: why should a car carrying one person zoom on the expressway, while a bus carrying 60 passengers is stuck in traffic? 

Moses Ndungu in Seattle, USA, offers a good lesson on the use of toll roads beyond making money. “Tolls are paid during peak hours (5-7pm). You also pay toll if driving alone and using high occupancy lanes reserved for buses or emergency vehicles.” Charges can be as high as $9 (Sh1,026). This encourages carpooling and the use of public transport, reducing congestion and pollution. 

Tolls make transport expensive, and this could have a ripple effect throughout the economy. If matatus or lorries have to pay toll from Nairobi to Mau Summit, they will pass that on to the customers.   

Tolls roads should lead to more efficiency, both in payment and driving. Shall we ensure that tolls are electronic, with one not having to queue by paying online and just driving through?  

Do we have an alternative to toll money? Why not use a lottery to raise money for building roads?

It’s very easy and efficient. Suppose we had a lottery for the Mau Summit Road and a ticket goes for Sh1,000, and you can win up to Sh1 billion, among other prizes.

One, including non-Kenyans, could buy as many tickets as possible.