Tollways overloaded with debt

Updated: 2011-10-17 08:27

By Tan Zongyang (China Daily)

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BEIJING - Traffic authorities in the capital said on Saturday the city's toll roads are still in heavy debt, as one-third of the tolls collected from highways were paid as interest to creditors who financed construction of the roads.

Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport, the city's traffic watchdog, said on its website that at the end of 2010 there were 816 km of toll roads in the city, with unpaid loans worth as much as 44 billion yuan ($7 billion).

Although 6 billion yuan was raised from motorists using the roads last year, 2 billion yuan of that was paid to creditors as interest, according to a financial statement issued by the commission.

The traffic authority said the city now has 17 toll roads managed by seven companies. It also mentioned the locations of the city's 22 tollgates.

"This was the first time that the capital's traffic watchdog has disclosed such information to the public, which helps to make the finances of the toll roads transparent," said Ye Qing, deputy director of the Hubei Provincial Bureau of Statistics, who is also an expert on fiscal and taxation systems.

Ye hailed the move, as it enables people to clearly see how much was invested in building the roads and the current debt owed by the road companies.

Ye said the figures seemed reliable but that he hoped the authorities could provide more details on certain items.

"The public are concerned about the high wages earned by toll collectors," he said. "In the financial statement, the amount paid in wages to employees has not been identified but just included in operating and management costs."

In addition, the statement showed that the roads could only generate enough revenue to cover their operation and maintenance. In that case, Ye said the roads could remain in debt for another 10 years, thus making free use by motorists impossible for some time yet.

China's highways have been long criticized for the exorbitant cost of their tolls, which puts pressure on truck drivers and logistics companies.

Last year, Shi Jianfeng, a driver in Central China's Henan province, received a life sentence for avoiding paying highway tolls worth almost 4 million yuan in only eight months. The case sparked heated discussion online as Shi's income was far less than the toll fees he was being charged.

In June, the State Council launched a campaign to cut highway fees across the nation to reduce the cost of transporting goods. The Ministry of Transport and four other departments jointly announced that they would better regulate the country's toll roads by closing illegal tollgates and abolishing improper charges.

The 12-month campaign which will last until the end of May 2012, first required municipal governments to inspect toll roads and make that information public.

Beijing transport commission said the disclosure of information is in line with the ministry' requirements. It said the city will further optimize the two-way system that allows drivers to use ordinary roads for free and high-quality expressways for a fee.