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Road Tolls Put Crushing Burden on Chinese Drivers
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The Standing Committee of the Beijing Municipal People's Congress renewed the Regulations to Beijing Highways at the end of July, bringing further criticism from members of the public who still fear the full impact of the new law.

The Rules stipulate that toll booths be dismantled after their loan payment terms have run their course.
Responses differ among people, with some outright applauding the move and others skeptical as to the government's reasons. But all sides agree that the toll booths scattered across the roads have become a veritable nuisance.

"There are more toll booths than service stops, more tolls than fuel surcharges," a long-distance bus driver said candidly to the International Herald Leader

"In China, which is building more toll roads than any other country in the world, legions of drivers are trying almost everything to avoid them," the New York Times wrote, describing China's toll road development as "feverish."

How much of the toll fees is going towards maintaining roads? Why are loan repayment terms always so long? These questions were raised when Lianhe Zaobao, a Singapore-based newspaper, analyzed the disputed issue: "Authorities embezzle the tolls which should be used to recoup construction cost and maintain road." Such an accusation contained more than a nugget of truth. 

The National Audit Office (NAO) found 158 illegitimate toll stations across 100 roads, with the majority of them having been erected so long. The fees levied covered construction costs, taking the problem to an endemic level. An example was a toll road in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou Province, which had collected 63.71 million yuan (US$8.42 million), more than four times the amount of loan.

"Toll roads are like cash cows. Everyone wants to grab a piece," a veteran driver told the International Herald Leader. "A road section shorter than one kilometer even holds three or four toll booths!"

A World Bank report released on February 12 focused on China's highway construction program, and lambasted it for having tolls charging around the same as their German counterparts -- about 12 to 21 cents a mile for trucks -- despite far lower incomes in China. At a Ministry of Communications seminar, World Bank asserted China's expensive toll charges compared with a low income level.

In 2006, charging tolls was listed as one of the country's most profitable occupations.

But some transportation departments affirmed that the road toll policy wouldn't be abolished, arguing that the toll provides an unlimited source for road development.

Since 1984, "road construction in the form of toll collection for loan repayments" has become widespread and toll booths have caused an extension of the country's road network.

It is reported that the world has about 140,000 kilometers of toll roads, and 100,000 kilometers of these are in China.

"I feel that toll roads are everywhere," Xia Yeliang, a professor of economics from Peking University grumbled. Xia sees highways as a public resource which should remain free to access. He added: "Taxpayers are entitled to the use of public roads and need not to pay for tolls."

Li Shuyuan, a retired engineer from the China Institute of Atomic Energy and also a representative of the municipal People's Congress, also seemed pessimistic about the new statute: "What most concerns me is how to draw a demarcation line between governmental loan-repaying toll road and operating toll road."

( by He Shan, August 12, 2007)

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