No reason to celebrate ending tolls

WHEN the government announced five tolls would be abolished by PLUS Malaysia Bhd, I was at first overjoyed. The Sungai Rasau and Batu Tiga toll gates have been a nuisance for the people of Klang and Shah Alam for the past three decades.

However, when I read just how they were going to do it, I started worrying. Apparently, the government will pay off PLUS.

According to Second Finance Minister Johari Abdul Ghani, PLUS will receive RM2.2 billion over 20 years, which breaks down to RM110 million a year.

To put into perspective, only RM100 million has been budgeted to buy buses and taxis for 2018. Thus, the price of buying out the tolls ensures that we have a government that will not be encouraging Malaysians to take public transport by keeping the price of driving low.

I am convinced you cannot encourage people to take public transport if you do not make driving expensive. Thus, we are back with the schizophrenic policies of encouraging public transport while also encouraging people to drive everywhere.

It comes as no surprise that Kuala Lumpur almost hit rock bottom when it comes to public transport rankings. The Sustainable Cities Mobility Index 2017 by Arcadis ranks Kuala Lumpur 95 out of 100.

Some have argued that removing the tolls will ease traffic flow – this is a fallacious argument. The more lanes you build, the more roads you pave, the more cars will be driven and the more traffic jams you will have: this is the principle of induced traffic.

Others have argued that our public transport is expensive – it is not. I believe public transport should remove the need to own a car, not complement it.

Another argument heard is that public transport is hard to reach the last mile, or even takes longer than driving. There is a grain of truth here, but much more countering this argument. The reason why driving takes shorter times is that we have paved too many roads which are clear during off-peak hours.

And at the same time, what did you expect when a government spends more on freeing toll gates rather than buying buses, training and hiring more drivers?

I will say this openly – driving should be expensive. Having a car, maintaining it, using tolled roads and even buying petrol, should all be expensive to discourage the use of more cars and encourage people to take a bus or a train, or even carpool where possible.

Nothing about a car should be subsidised, nor should it somehow receive some form of tax deduction or exclusion for anyone, even if they have an approved permit.

Instead, imagine what you could do with RM2.2 billion being budgeted to be spent on buses to connect Malaysians to public transport hubs over 20 years. And then couple this with the completion of a new MRT Line and the LRT Line 3?

As an alternative, imagine reinvesting whatever was done for cars to ensure we have closed plazas allowing people to walk on the street, with proper pedestrian crossings which Malaysian drivers have the attitude and comprehension to obey.

Imagine accosting your local MP and peppering her with questions on a train headed to Parliament. Or maybe a state assemblyman on the bus here in Selangor, which is now mulling over the use of electric cars.

Here's a question, why can't they all take the free bus service they started for everyone, especially if they live in the vicinity?

Malaysians need to embrace public transport, and the way we must do it is by discouraging personal transport while further developing mass transport links by rail and bus. We have put it off for far too long.

Other cities developed transport links out of the need to take people out of their cars; here in Malaysia, we did it as a vanity project for the Commonwealth Games and then abandoned it without upgrades for two decades. And no, there is no way I am considering the KL Monorail as a valid "upgrade".

No, don't end the tolls. Increase the rates, install AES cameras at all toll plazas to stop people speeding and even place emission cameras to help agencies issue more summonses to make people take their car maintenance seriously.

Introduce a congestion fee for Kuala Lumpur if you have to. The government must send out the message that the era of subsidised driving is over.

Hafidz Baharom is a public relations practitioner. Comments: