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LETTER | New tolled highway will not win new voters

LETTER | As a fan of this coalition government, allow me to offer some free advice on this issue of tolled highways.

This is a step-by-step formula on how to eliminate tolls in phases, as it was an agenda of the Pakatan Harapan campaign in the 14th and 15th general elections.

On the assumption that the government is serious about this matter, the first step is to make toll concessions more transparent.

The government should declassify all toll concession agreements. That should be the first thing to do.

After all, these agreements were signed long ago and under the previous administrations, not Harapan’s in 2018 or the current coalition government.

This government, led by Harapan, can adopt a different approach to better governance, accountability, and transparency.

Better governance must not include hiding information and not disclosing the contents of previous toll concession agreements.

When implemented, this approach will make Harapan appear serious and responsible, and keep to its campaign promises.

All the toll concession agreements should be made open to scrutiny and transparent to the public. No hidden agenda, secret clauses, or surprises.

Next is to allow the rakyat to have access to them so the public can understand and appreciate the contents of such complex and sophisticated pieces of concession agreements.

Also, they can help to monitor and assist in the debate, on whether tolls should continue to be charged or otherwise.

I can’t see why toll agreements must be classified under the Official Secrets Act.

Once that decision is taken, then we can talk openly and debate on how best to move forward without the risk of being charged in court.

High compensation

We learned from past practices and experiences that the government did not always make the best decisions, often not in the best interests of the rakyat or the country.

Many agreements were skewed towards the concession holders, or the corporate sector, or their shareholders.

Tolled highways are just one of them.

Education, government properties, naval procurement, and supply of medical and health products agreements are also caught in the same quagmire for years.

Thus, the high compensation cost of tolls was to be cancelled, as raised by the works minister, as they are the product of these one-sided agreements, which were designed not in favour of the government.

In the interim, this government should stop any increase in toll rates.

Take the approach of renegotiating the various concessions and, while negotiations are ongoing, no rate increases are allowed.

It’s true that it’s not feasible to abolish tolls overnight as the minister rightly said. Who’s there to look after the maintenance of those highways?

Therefore, a clear maintenance framework must be formulated and put in place by the time toll collection is done away with.

Funding for public transport

Apart from highway maintenance costs, perhaps some consideration must also be given to how public transport should be funded.

Toll collections could easily be channelled to pay for the upgrading of intercity public transport, especially for train and coach services.

The public transport sector lacks funding and faces stiff competition from private cars.

Current policy which favours the growth of private car ownership and its unrestricted usage are not helping public transport to grow into a viable alternative.

If income from toll collection could fund public transport, then maybe the rakyat can understand why tolls must continue to be collected in some places.

The narrative that those who are using tolled roads are not in the B40 category must be highlighted too.

Is it true that those in the B40 category mainly use old roads and are more likely to own motorcycles rather than cars?

These issues must be addressed and debated, too.

So, abolishing toll charges have implications which have not been studied and debated comprehensively.

Unless that income could be channelled to improve public transport, which the B40 group are more likely to use, then the call for abolishing tolls is not seen to be justified.

The other question to ask is if the government is working toward eliminating tolled highways, then why are we seeing more new ones being proposed?

Certainly, places like KL, PJ, Shah Alam, and several areas in the Klang Valley are already full of highways.

We cannot have “spaghetti junctions” all over the Klang Valley; it will look so ugly.

Also, we cannot pretend to resolve traffic congestion by building more highways. This approach will not work and is very short-sighted.

The government, therefore, must put an immediate stop to any new tolled highway proposals.

That should be a final step in the government blueprint, to resolve this tolled highway issue.

The government must remember that the road to winning the hearts and minds of the voters is definitely not via a new tolled highway.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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