Toll booth mania

Last week while driving towards Coimbatore, I took route via NH-7 and NH-47. This section has about seven tool booths located at NICE road, Hosur, Krishnagiri, Toppur, Omalur, Sankagiri and Perundurai. It should take about 4.5 hours to reach the last toll booth if driven in non-stop fashion. But I had to spend nearly 1.5 hours waiting at these toll booths to pay money. While returning I took detours avoiding 5 out of these 7 tolls and reached faster!

This made me to write a post on the nuisances of toll booths in India.

History of toll booths
The widespread collection of toll for highways in India started with the construction of golden quadrilateral. During initial days, people did not mind paying toll as it allowed driving on four lane highways. That was 10 years ago. As years passed, more and more roads were turned into four lane highways and number of vehicles increased dramatically. People also started travelling a lot. This lead to vehicle pileup in front of toll booths especially during long weekend and near major cities.

People are now getting frustrated that they need to wait for long time to pay toll. The time saved driving on good roads is lost waiting at toll plazas. The initial thrill of driving on four lane road is gone. The incidents of travelers fighting with people manning toll booths are increasing. In Maharashtra, there was widespread agitation against tolls which forced the Government to close some of the toll booths. Politicians have found toll as lucrative area to make money which has led to corruption in toll collection system. Government is also not getting the money.

How it works in other countries?
In US, most highways do not have tolls and they are rightfully called as “Freeways”. Europe is mixed with some countries having tolls while others like Germany (Autobahns with sections having no speed limits) providing free rides. But none of them have queue policy. Tolls are automated and vehicles just zip away. Even in HongKong where there were “Manual” tolls, the drivers need to pay a fixed amount and go. It is very fast.

And note that the toll road in developed countries is “Expressway” with access controls. Our four lane roads are no way near comparable to western standards.

Problem with toll booths in India
·        There is no uniform policy on the frequency of toll booths – Some tolls exist within few km. Ex: On Bengaluru-Hassan stretch, two toll booths near Bellur cross are within the distance of 20km.

·        Our toll roads are not access controlled. Why should one pay for roads where people and animals can cross freely?

·        Villagers on either side of the road are hard hit. It is really painful and hard for them to cross highways. NHAI has not built enough passenger ways across sections.

·        NHAI is supposed to build service roads or alternate roads. That is not adhered in many cases. But toll is always collected.

·        Toll collection for under construction roads. In Bellary road, contractors collected toll even when their flyovers were under construction. When Hosur-Krishnagiri section was being widened to six lanes, toll was still collected even though driving was not smooth.

·        Roads are not well maintained even on toll road. A perfect example is NICE road. Even though it claims to be an expressway the road is bumpy at many stretches.

·        Greedy collection booths. There is a toll booth just before the deviation to International Airport in Bengaluru. This is to ensure that contractors can make more money. Lot of protests but no use.

·        Pricing policy. It is not linked to number of vehicles. More vehicles should result in fewer tolls. But on contrary, toll prices increase every year!

·        Corruption. The less said is better!

·        Manual toll booths. Majority of tolls booth are still controlled manually resulting in slow movement of vehicles.

·        Sometimes, even on a busy day, some of the booths are closed resulting in vehicle pileups.

·        No clear idea on how long can contractors can collect toll.

·        Fuel wastage. As per Government estimate fuel wasted by stopping at toll plaza is whopping 85,000 crores!! Yes, eighty five thousand crore rupees!!!!

·        Health issue. When vehicles move at snail pace, exposed people inhale gaseous air. Pity to see the toll booth workers breathing bad air throughout the day.

FastTag system
Recently, Government came up with “Fasttag”, an electronic tag reader system. This is installed on one of the lanes at toll booths. I had lot of hopes on that but unfortunately the system does not seem to work as expected. First of all, when vehicles pile up for kilometers, how can one get access to the FastTag lane? And they are always located not on the side lanes but somewhere in the middle lane. It is said that people have to pay double the amount if they do not have tag but does not seem to be implemented strictly.

Possible solutions
·        Close toll booths. Keep it only for access controlled roads. Many countries collect toll indirectly by taxes. India is also a heavy tax collecting country. We pay huge income tax, road tax and fuel tax. Does it make sense to collect toll in spite of these taxes?

·        Abolish manual booths and make them automatic. When people can afford four wheeler, it is not difficult to get a card and link it to their bank account. But system should be built in a way to handle long weekend crowds.

·        There are systems where one needs to pay exact amount. The balance amount is not returned if extra money is paid. This makes movement faster as people do not have to wait for change. This needs lot of discipline among drivers and I doubt whether it will be successful in India.

·        Collect toll only from “Yellow board” vehicles. It is said that 80% of toll revenue comes from them. Apparently this idea was under discussion but seems like contractors are not willing to let go of that amount.

The present structure is not sustainable. There is a need to fix this problem.