Wednesday, May 16, 2007

"In China, whoever builds the road can collect tolls."

In China, It’s Not Always Clear for Whom the Booth Tolls

May 16, 2007

The New York Times
Copyrigh t2007

CHEN VILLAGE, China — Few motorists in any country brighten at the sight of tollbooths ahead. In China, which is building more toll roads than any other country in the world, legions of drivers are trying almost anything to avoid them.

In Chongqing, a sprawling municipality in central China, so many owners of private cars and trucks are using fraudulent toll-exempt military plates that one toll highway has estimated its annual losses at roughly 10 million yuan, or $1.2 million.

In March a driver outfitted his vehicle like an ambulance, with flashing lights and an emergency response phone number painted on the side. He then raced through a highway tollbooth as if rushing to a hospital, until the police arrested him.

For centuries, commoner and collector have waged a volatile contest in China that has occasionally toppled dynasties but never quite been resolved. Leaders of the current dynasty, the Communist Party, are worried enough about angry peasants that they lifted the centuries-old agriculture tax as a populist gesture.

Tolls are another matter. By 2020, if all goes as planned, China will have completed almost 53,000 miles of expressways, a network roughly equivalent to the Interstate System in the United States. China considers expressways crucial to maintaining its economic growth and developing its western and interior provinces.

But the cost is so exorbitant that China is financing much of the system with tolls that are, by Chinese standards, pricey.

Two people who should know are Mr. Wang and Mr. Gu. The two men — who were nervous about divulging their first names to a snooping foreigner — are posted at a dingy intersection in this farming village in Hebei Province.

Not far away is a highway tollbooth. Every day cars and heavy trucks, as steady and determined as a trail of ants, try to skip the toll by cutting through the village on a narrow road.

Mr. Wang, 65, and Mr. Gu, 58, try to send them back. They say the tollbooth operator is paying the village a monthly fee to help crack down on toll jumpers. For its part the village is trying to stop heavy trucks from ruining its roads. The two men regulate traffic with a long, crooked stick that goes up and down like a crude crossing barrier.

Mr. Gu does the talking. Mr. Wang wields the stick.

“Can I get through?” one motorist asked on a recent afternoon as other cars waited.

“No,” Mr. Gu replied. Only local people are allowed to pass.

“Is there any other way around the toll?” the driver asked, smiling. “Come on, let me through.”

Toll road building has been so feverish in China that roughly 25,000 miles of toll expressways were built from 1990 to 2005, according to the World Bank. At the same time, the country has been adding millions of new cars to the roads every year, a seemingly perfect combination of vehicles and toll roads. But Chinese are famous economizers, and beyond that, tolls are expensive compared with income levels.

A recent World Bank report on China’s highway construction program found that the toll roads were charging roughly the same as the German toll system — about 25 cents a mile for trucks — despite far lower incomes in China.

It costs $1.30 to go from the Beijing airport to the city, and about $5 for the roughly 25-mile trip from the capital’s northeastern suburbs to the Great Wall. Not all that much for a Westerner, but a lot here, where an average farmer — most of whom cannot afford cars — makes less than $400 a year and urban factory workers can average roughly $1,000 or perhaps a bit more.

“The price of the tolls is an issue,” said Greg Wood, a consultant who worked on the World Bank report. Mr. Wood said China needed to ensure that prices did not inhibit traffic from growing to the levels necessary to pay off the debt on the roads.

As toll roads have expanded, many areas nearby have become toll escape zones. Mr. Wood said some private companies investing in toll roads were demanding the right to collect tolls on adjacent roads as one means of curbing toll jumpers. On the outskirts of Beijing it is common to see lines of trucks stretching for several miles along a narrow two-lane highway as they try to avoid the toll on the faster highway nearby.

Chen Village is on the northwestern outskirts of the city of Shijiazhuang, the gritty capital of Hebei Province. In recent years, tolls have blossomed on roads and bridges around the city. Public reaction has not been joyous. A group of local Communist Party representatives circulated an angry petition last year after higher authorities allowed a Hong Kong investor to open a tollbooth in exchange for fixing a bridge.

One local newspaper, sympathetic to the petitioners, published an in-depth report under the headline “This Toll Is Tyranny.”

Near Chen Village, the Shigang Highway opened several years ago with a tollbooth that charged cars $1.30. Trucks are charged about twice as much. Motorists quickly began exiting before the tollbooth and detouring through the village, which had recently pooled donations from farmers to pave local roads.

Miao Penghu, the head of the village, said the village had responded by opening its own unofficial toll station — the post currently overseen by Mr. Wang and Mr. Gu — to pay for the damage to roads by heavy trucks. But such unsanctioned tollbooths were outlawed a few years ago. Mr. Miao said that the village no longer collected tolls but that it was under contract with the Shigang Highway’s managers to block traffic.

“They are paying us, and by us turning the trucks around, they are making money, too,” Mr. Miao said. “It’s a win-win situation.”

Or not.

Ask the driver of small green taxi from Shijiazhuang who approached Mr. Wang and Mr. Gu.

“You can’t pass through,” Mr. Gu announced.

The taxi window was rolled down, and an arm emerged with the universal lubricant of rural Chinese society: an offer of free cigarettes.

“No, no cigarettes,” Mr. Gu said. “Look at our road. It is all torn up.”

“But it is the trucks, not me,” the driver pleaded before finally speeding away in the opposite direction. Mr. Gu and Mr. Wang insist that deterrence is their sole purpose. Money no longer changes hands, they say.

But one villager said that while the inspection point did send back some trucks, it also allowed some cars to pass for a small fee.

“This is not a tollbooth,” Mr. Gu protested. “It is not a tollbooth!”

A city taxi driver who regularly passes through the village laughed at such a notion. He said the village fee was usually 25 cents or a bit more. He avoids it because he speaks the local dialect and can pass as a resident.

“In China,” the driver said, “whoever builds the road can collect tolls.”

© 2007 The New York Times Company:

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