Illegal highway tolls have taken at least 23.1 billion yuan (3.1 billion U.S. dollars) from Chinese motorists, who have the longest toll road network in the world, a government study has found.
Thirty-four people had received criminal or disciplinary punishment for illegal highway toll operations and management, according to a national audit of toll highways conducted by the National Audit Office (NAO).
A total of 14.9 billion yuan had been collected from 158 illegal tollgates by the end of 2005, while another 8.2 billion yuan was claimed from illegally excessive toll rises, the NAO said on its website.
The findings came from a survey of 86,800 kilometers of toll roads in 18 provincial-level regions, including Beijing and Shanghai.
The regions had 133,100 kilometers of turnpikes, about 70 percent of the national total, and 4,328 toll stations at the end of 2005, an average of one every 30 kilometers.
The government has allowed the building of high-quality roads with bank credit and the charging of motorists to repay the loans since 1984 in order to boost highway construction for which government investment is limited.
However, some local governments have toll roads a method to raise funds, setting up excessive numbers of tollgates, raising charging standards and prolonging tolling terms, said the office.
Motorists have been complaining of the high fees, arguing they raise transport costs and reduce traffic efficiency.
The NAO criticized the loose management of toll roads, including the cutting or exempting of officials and government departments from fees, transferring operating rights to private enterprises without approval and using toll revenues for purposes other than the repayment of loans.
Many local governments have burdened the public with toll road building sprees in violation of national guidelines for establishing free highways the bulk of the road system, said the report.
It revealed 67 percent of new second-class roads required tolls in all the surveyed regions except Beijing and Shanghai by the end of 2005. As a result, toll roads accounted for 54 percent of the total mileage of second-class roads in those areas.
Tolls are allowed only on roads of second-class or higher quality, according to China's regulations.
Meanwhile, 35 percent of the land expropriated for toll roads was obtained through unauthorized procedures, said the report.
The NAO urged local governments to control toll road construction, increase government investment, save land resources and disclose toll revenues and management for public supervision.
Local governments had started to deal with the problems, said the NAO.
The country's policy for toll highways is effective for promoting road construction and would be maintained as China still needed high-class roads to meet its transport needs, said Pan Xiaojun, senior auditor of fixed-asset investment with the NAO.
(Xinhua News Agency February 28, 2008)