Free roads go all out to win hearts during holidays

Updated: 2012-10-13 08:13

By Bai Ping (China Daily)

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Will toll-free highways be a short-lived populist measure after traffic congestions and other side effects rose to the fore during the recent eight-day National Day holiday?

Some economists certainly hope so. For example, Li Daokui, noted professor of economics and former adviser to China's central bank, mocked the toll-free policy saying it created a world record for stupidity and blamed it for causing gridlocks on national highways.

In a widely circulated micro blog post, Li said the toll should have been raised by 50 percent instead and the extra revenue collected spent on opening more schools in rural areas or building more aircraft carriers.

Compared with many other ideas of addressing holiday highway jams, Li's views that make car owners pay both for using highways and social costs seem to be the best way to tweak the road usage pattern. Isn't it simple economics that the higher the toll the fewer people would use the road?

Li has also thought of good ways to use the congestion charges to be imposed on car owners for emitting more carbon dioxide, littering and straining tourist sites that are already bursting at the seams.

But supporters of toll-free roads were quick to point out that other logics such as exorbitant pricing and murky use of proceeds play even bigger roles in the workings of China's highways, a quasi business sector that is highly monopolistic and fraught with market failures.

The toll on China's highways is reportedly among the highest in the world - about 1 yuan for every 2 kilometers a driver travels. It is common knowledge among drivers that tolls cost more than fuel in the country. In one extreme case, last year, an expressway in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, was found to have charged 3 yuan for 300 meters.

Legal Daily, a Chinese-language newspaper, said markets didn't work well with China's highways because the tolls were usually collected by local governments or their contractors who tended to use the roads as cash cows.

Builders and operators of many toll highways use various tactics such as transfer of operation and injection of additional investment to charge users longer than they are legally allowed to or after they have repaid their loans, the paper said.

As another indication of deep-rooted resentment against highway operators, some people suspect disgruntled toll collectors had deliberately contributed to the traffic woes on the first day of the National Day holiday, because they insisted that drivers obtain a toll card at the entrance to a highway and return it at the exit - even though there was no need to pay.

The public perceives the toll-free highway holiday as a goodwill gesture by the government to appease discontented car owners and hopes the move will eventually lead to abolishment of highway tolls.

While economists may disagree, from the perspective of social management, the benefits of winning the hearts of millions of car owners far outweigh the revenue loss and strains on the environment.

Many drivers think they can learn from the grinding experience and make better use of the free roads in the future. Some have already set sights on Spring Festival, the next long national holiday, which has earned the reputation as the world's biggest human migration as Chinese people rush home to celebrate the Chinese New Year with their families.

Holiday highway traffic will continue to increase as more cars are expected to hit the free roads.

More creative ideas may be rolled out to ease gridlocks, but forcing drivers to pay a marginal price during holidays will not be one of them, although it makes economic sense.

The writer is editor-at-large of China Daily. Email: dr.baiping@gmail.com

(China Daily 10/13/2012 page5)

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