High court stops e-toll project
Fin24 - Apr 30th 2012, 08:04
Pretoria - The High Court in Pretoria granted an urgent interdict to halt the contentious R20bn e-toll project in Gauteng on Saturday.
"People are held captive by the toll roads," said Judge Bill Prinsloo, delivering judgment on an application by the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (Outa).
"I make the following order... the first respondent (SA National Roads Agency) is interdicted and restrained from levying and collecting tolls," said the judge, to applause in the public gallery.
After being postponed five times, the e-toll project will now have to wait for the outcome of a court review, which lawyers this week warned could take up to the end of the year.
Prinsloo said that while he realised the ruling would put financial strain on Sanral, it was clear that many South African citizens would suffer financial hardship if it went ahead.
"I am alive to the fact that Sanral may suffer financial losses. This could result in its business rating being downgraded," Prinsloo said.
But he read out affidavits by five South African citizens that described their hardships and how the e-toll project would affect them.
Prinsloo said he was aware that there must be thousands, if not tens of thousands, who must use the toll roads and would suffer financially as a result.
He bemoaned a lack of good alternative transport.
"The main roads are massively populated on a daily basis because there are no metropolitan or secondary roads available."
Prinsloo said he had "carefully considered" the arguments brought by all parties in the case this week, which were made by no fewer than 19 lawyers and filled 2 500 pages.
He believed that Outa had made a prima facie case for a review of the e-toll project.
Outside court, two men protesting against the tolls were sitting on deck chairs, wearing suits.
Both were holding "newspapers" as placards, which stated: "The high price of freedom benefits who?" and "Politics of this country are like fish and chips".
Between the chairs was another poster that said: "We wouldn't kill for (President Jacob) Zuma".
The roll-out of the tolls has seen resistance and protests from several quarters, including the ruling African National Congress' tripartite alliance partner, the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu).
Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi this week warned, in an interview on SABC radio, that it would have "serious repercussions at a political level".
"We are quite determined to convince them it will make no political sense at this stage to proceed with such an unpopular policy," Vavi said on Thursday morning, shortly before he went into a meeting with the ANC on the matter.
As a result, the ANC announced that e-tolls - at that stage scheduled to start on Monday - would be delayed by another month.
This was confirmed by the transport department.
But Prinsloo said that the announcement had no bearing on his judgment.
This week, Prinsloo also heard from the National Treasury, who warned that halting the e-toll project would have "serious negative implications for future financing of roads and investment in public transport".
Deputy Transport Minister Jeremy Cronin has acknowledged that, with the benefit of hindsight, the project was not a good idea, but it was too late now to halt it.
"If we could rewind the clock, we would not have recommended this specific project," Cronin told SABC radio on Thursday.
"The problem is, of course, we have now spent R20 billion on the project and the question is, how do we pay for this?
"One way or another, the public is going to have to pay for it."
However, Outa lawyer Alistair Franklin argued that the system was unreasonable as it had disproportionate costs attached to it.
"Collecting costs are exceeding the cost of improvement (of the roads)," he told the court.
Sanral recently irked motorists even further when it announced that those who did not register for e-tags on the 185 kilometres of tolled highways would have to pay a higher punitive rate.
The agency cited costs associated with recovering payment, including invoicing and debt collection, as reasons for the R1.75c punitive tariff per kilometre, compared to the standard tariff of 30c per kilometre for registered users.
Outa was set to address a media briefing on the ruling at 2pm on Saturday.
The judgment was widely welcomed, with both the opposition Democratic Alliance and Cosatu applauding it.
Vavi tweeted: "There is no replacement to principle and truth - congratulations!!!"
The transport department issued a short statement, saying: "We respect the decision. We will study the ruling thoroughly and decide on the next course of action."
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