The road transport and bridges ministry has started working on the prime minister’s directives to collect tolls from vehicles plying the four-lane highways, a move that is likely to eventually increase people’s cost of transportation.
The ministry directed the Roads and Highways Department on September 29 to take action in this regard.
“We have not yet identified the highways on which we will collect tolls. But our primary targets are the four-lane highways,” Mohammed Shafiqul Karim, joint secretary (toll and axle) at the Road Transport and Highways Division of the ministry, told The Daily Star.
However, the authorities are yet to decide when to implement the decisions and which vehicles should pay the tolls.
Under the Toll Policy-2014, the RHD is currently collecting tolls on the two-lane 50km Hatikumrul-Bonpara highway, 13.7km Chattogram Port Access Road, and 74km stretch of Dhaka-Sylhet highway between Jagadishpur and Sherpur.
The base toll is Tk 2 on each kilometre on important highways, Tk 1.5 on national highways, Tk 1 on regional highways and Tk 0.5 on district roads, according to the 2014 policy.
The RHD has 22,096km of national and regional highways and district roads. The Dhaka-Chattogram and Dhaka-Mymensingh highways are four-lane. Besides, construction of four-lane Dhaka-Tangail and Dhaka-Mawa highways is underway.
According to last year’s report of the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED) of the planning ministry, about 32,000 vehicles use the Dhaka-Chattogram highway every day. Currently, vehicles have to pay to go across the Meghna and Gumti bridges on Dhaka-Chattogram highway.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during an Ecnec meeting on September 3, instructed the authorities concerned to collect tolls from long-haul vehicles on the national highways.
After the meeting, Planning Minister MA Mannan told reporters that the money collected would be deposited into a bank account and spent on maintenance and repair work of the roads.
Vehicles going short distances would not have to pay, he said, adding the ministry concerned would prepare a detailed guideline on it.
The road transport and bridges ministry recently received a letter from the planning ministry in this regard. “Even before getting the latter, we verbally asked the Roads and Highways Department to start preparing,” a ministry official said.
Ebne Alam Hasan, chief engineer at the RHD, said tolls should be imposed on all 3,906kms of national highways.
But at present, it would be right to collect tolls from the four-lane highways only because the benefits that should be given to people before collecting tolls are present on these highways only, he said.
The RHD would have to construct certain structures, including toll plazas, before starting the toll collection. “We would collect tolls after taking the preparations.”
The department has started working on developing a toll collection system and several donor agencies and countries have expressed interest in it, a top official said.
BURDEN ON PASSENGERS
Bus service operators and road-safety campaigners say the passengers will ultimately shoulder the burden as the transport companies would charge more from them once the decisions are implemented.
The government must keep the roads safe and ensure smooth journey before imposing tolls. Investment on road development should be transparent, they added.
Passengers will ultimately pay the tolls, said Romesh Chandra Ghosh, chairman of Bangladesh Bus-Truck Owners’ Association.
The association will raise the issue after receiving the formal letter from the authorities, he said.
Mozammel Hoque Chowdhury, secretary general of passenger welfare organisation Bangladesh Jatri Kalyan Samity, also said people will end up paying more.
“If you want to impose tolls to use the highways, you first need to ensure smooth roads, free of congestion and crashes,” he said.
People will not accept the decision otherwise, he added.
Eminent transport expert Prof Shamsul Haque said the highways were “not eligible” for collecting tolls.
What the government says about repairing roads seems “irrational” before good quality roads are constructed, he said.
There should be a two-tier system. Access to the one where tolls are collected would be controlled and there would be an alternative road for those who will not pay anything, he added.
“But our highways are not like that. Introducing tolls without having an alternative road is not rational,” he said.
Prof Shamsul, also former director of Accident Research Institute at Buet, pointed out that both legal and illegal and speedy and slow-moving vehicles were operated on the highways.
“Imposition of tolls would be irrational keeping the inconstancy.”
Overloaded vehicles and the poor quality of construction work are the main causes of the hefty maintenance costs, he said.
At present, two-axle vehicles (six wheels) can carry a maximum of 22 tonnes, three-axle (10 wheels) 30 tonnes and four-axle (14 wheels) 44 tonnes. However, as per the global standard, the limits are 15.5, 22 and 32 tonnes.
The government was reportedly forced by transport owners and workers to increase the maximum weight limit of goods-laden vehicles from November 2017.
Shamsul said it is unethical to collect tolls from people while overloaded vehicles are allowed and the quality of roads is questionable.
About the money required for road maintenance, he said the authorities earn around Tk 2,500 to Tk 3,000 crore from vehicles’ registration, fitness certificate and other charges and tolls from bridges every year.
The money can easily be deposited in a single fund and be used for road maintenance, he added.
The government has allocated Tk 2,550 crore to the RHD in 2019-20 fiscal for repairing and maintaining roads.
Meanwhile, Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader at a press conference on September 11 said almost all countries in the world collect tolls.
“Why will Bangladesh remain an exception?” he said, adding that the toll would be collected for maintenance of highways.