How much can be expected of the year-long campaign against illegal or unreasonable tolls on most of the country's highways? It will depend on how heavy the penalties the central government will mete out for their local counterparts that extort motorists by setting up more tollgates or charge more tolls than they should.
Five central government departments - the ministries of transport, finance, supervision, National Development and Reform Commission and State Council Office for Rectification of Unhealthy Working Styles - jointly launched the campaign on Monday.
The move aims to close the tollgates that collect more money than needed to repay the loans for the construction of the expressways, lower the overpriced tolls and reduce the total number of tollgates to a reasonable amount.
Given the heavy toll the tollgates have taken on the country's economy, this campaign is long overdue. Statistics show that the total cost of logistics related to the tolls was about 18 percent of China's GDP last year. Expressways take up 75 percent of the total freight volume and tolls charged on the way make up 20 to 30 percent of the transport expenses on average.
Undoubtedly, road tolls have contributed much more than they should to the rising cost of all commodities.
It is not difficult to conclude from the tone of the notice jointly issued by the five departments that they are determined to completely overhaul the messy toll situation. They have pledged to shut down the illegal tollgates and officials involved will be made to shoulder both legitimate and administrative responsibilities.
We do not question their ability to shut down a dozen or more tollgates, or lower the overpriced charges to a reasonable level. But some of the closed tollgates may reopen and the lowered charges may surge again after the campaign.
There is no mention in the notice of ways to make local governments keep their tollgates exactly the way the campaign requires.
What is badly needed is the transparent management of the country's roads. The general public needs to be told how much money has been spent in constructing a particular section of expressway, and whether the local government has borrowed loans from banks. It needs to know how long it will take for the tollgates to earn enough to repay the loans, how much money will be needed to maintain the well-being of the road and where the money should come from.
These are facts on which the legitimacy of the tollgates is based. These are the figures local and central governments should let taxpayers know.
A clear and transparent account of these figures should also help this campaign solve the thorny problem of road tolls once and for all.
(China Daily 06/21/2011 page8)