Works Minister lays new toll gate charges in Parliament

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By Alfred Koroma

The Minister of Works and Public Assets, Denis Sandy, has on Thursday, 29 February, tabled the proposed Toll Gate charges in the Well of Parliament for approval.

The new tariff which has faced wide public condemnation was scheduled to take effect today, Friday, 1st March 2024. But it cannot take effect without Parliamentary approval.

Making a statement after the Minister had tabled the charges, Speaker of Parliament, Dr. Abass Bundu said the Legislative House need enough time to consider the charges in the interest of all parties – the investors, government and the people before making a final decision.

He said Parliament will look into whether the new charges were proposed in line with the agreement MPs ratified in the previous government, but noted that the agreement is binding on all governments and that Parliament is not seeking to question the validity of the document ratified by the last government.

Both the Majority and Minority Leaders of the House re-echoed the Speaker’s statement, emphasising the need to carefully consider the interest of the investors and the general public.

China Railway Seventh Group (CRSG), the Company which is operating the Wellington-Masiaka Toll Gates, constructed the dual carriage road with four lanes, estimated at $154 million, after signing a loan agreement with the Government of Sierra Leone in 2015.

It was a Build Operate and Transfer Loan Agreement, agreed to be repaid through the collection of toll at each of the three Toll Gates between Freetown and Masiaka.

CRSG started collecting the repayment in 2017, before the completion of the said road.

According to the agreement, from the gross income toll revenue collected annually, 5 percent goes to government. The remaining 95 percent remains with CRSG for the purpose of the loan and interest repayment.

So the claims that government is receiving 10 percent is not correct. Government will only start receiving 10 percent of the revenue after the country has repaid the loan, Sandy told the crowded during the Parliamentary Stakeholders’ engagement on Tuesday, referencing the agreement.

But as CRSG proposes an increase of the toll tariff, the present status of the loan is not clear to the public, prompting questions about how much of the loan have repaid since 2017. And how much is left for Sierra Leoneans to pay?

Despite all the recent deliberations, this data is yet to come out. What has come out is the traffic data. That’s when the Works Minister disclosed at the Stakeholders’ meeting that 9,804,365 vehicles crossed the three toll gate in 2023. But the authenticity of the data is also in question due to issues spanning from lack of transparency between CRSG and the Sierra Leone Roads Authority. The latter has accused CRSG of not being transparent with the traffic data.

That’s probably the result of the many loopholes in the agreement that gave CRSG an exclusive rights and obligation to charge and collect toll tariff, legally justifying the increment which might even affect the decision of Parliament.

But in all indications, it is clear the general public do not favor an increment on the tool fee at the moment. The fear is that an increase on the toll tariff will spark a further hike in the highly inflated prices of commodities, fueling more suffering.

The tariff is proposed to increase to over 100 percent. For instance, Drivers of Trailers, fuel bowsers with tank trailers, semi-trailers and flat Benz (Group 5) are presently paying 183, but if the proposed fee take effect, they would now be paying Le700 per each toll gate. The Motor Drivers Union particularly has problem with this increment, and it would have an effect on the prices of goods transported along the route.

“The Le700 per vehicle is too much and would prove problematic,” the Union’s President, Alpha Amadu Bah told MPs on Tuesday.

“We don’t want any increment,” Civil Society Activists, Edmond Abu added.

The other issue is that, there is no alternative route for road users who do not wish to use the toll road. As the Speaker of Parliament put it, that’s different from other countries where toll gates operate.  In other parts of the world, you are given an alternative. You either use the road with a toll or you use a longer or not so convenient road without a toll. The choice is yours. But in Sierra Leone, there is no choice given to the road users.

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