When the idea of building tolled highways first appeared in developed countries, planners and economists agreed that this type of highways should be built only as alternative roads.
In other words, a tolled highway should be built, more or less, in parallel to an existing road so that motorists have a choice. They could either continue use an existing road free of charge which, due to its limited capacity, would be congested at times; or they could use a new road, built with sufficient expressway capacity, so their journey times would be reduced, for a small fee.
This concept is considered acceptable socially and politically, and examples of such tolled highways can be found in many countries in Western Europe and across developed countries in Asia too. In these countries, principles of highway planning are closely followed. The interests of road users are considered vital and well looked after; tolled highways do not become political issues and if those tolled highways were privatized, they were done in a transparent and proper manner.
Also, how such an infrastructure affects the economic activities and social life of the people around it were also properly assessed so as to gain optimum benefits and minimise negative impact. Even more important is when it involves payments in the form of toll collection, which is mainly done by the government of these countries.
In Malaysia, when one examines this tolled highway concept against parallel roads built in Malaysia, one cannot help but feel disappointed.
Apart from the North-South Expressway (NSE) which was heavily scrutinised during the planning stage and which possess some elements of the parallel highway concept along some stretches of the old Federal road (Route 1), not many other expressways or highways in Malaysia were built using the same concept.
On the contrary, some of the old roads and earlier built highways were blatantly taken over and given to expressway concession companies to collect toll. Examples of such mishandling or planning contradictions include the old Federal highway with toll collection booths at Batu Tiga and Klang; KL-Seremban highway, Jalan Sungai Besi-Cheras, KL-Kajang highway, KL-Karak highway, New Pantai Expressway and the costly and much delayed Lebuhraya Pantai Timur (LPT).
Disregard for choice has been the hallmark of many newly planned highways. It was made worse by highway concession companies’ greed for more toll collections by maximising the number of vehicles on their roads.
Some of the highways were purposely designed to trap road users whereby they end up with no choice but to use these highways in their daily mobility. As Klang Valley is teeming with car owners and poorly equipped with public transport facilities, highway concession companies rushed in to select certain high demand routes and stamp their authority with more highways.
On the pretext of solving traffic congestion, their hidden agenda was actually huge profit margin that was driven by the high car ownership growth and limited capacity for public transport services.
It is obvious that after NSE, subsequent highways have been planned and built haphazardly in Malaysia. Malaysian Highway Authority (MHA), which is responsible for the construction, standards, management and usage of expressways under Federal Roads Act (Private Management) 1984, has done a mediocre job as far as policy and physical planning are concerned. Their mere existence is nothing but to facilitate the process of highway building by the highway concession companies whose rights to build have already been decided by those in the corridors of power.
Unlike the Highway Agency in the UK, a central body that holds jurisdictions on all matters pertaining to studying, planning, evaluating, contracting, building, operating and managing all motorways in the UK, MHA does not build or manage even a single expressway or highway. In fact, all expressways and highways in Malaysia today are in the hands toll concession companies, some of which are more powerful than MHA, in terms of their ability to dictate terms for their concessions!
Also, the sad truth is, there is no free highway in Malaysia today; all are tolled. This is despite the fact that road tax continues to be collected by the government in billions of ringgit every year.
- Dr Rosli Khan obtained his PhD in Transport Economics from Cranfield University, UK. He has been a practising consultant/company director in the last 25 years, being involved primarily in infrastructure development and economic policies.