Why are tolls taking a toll on Mumbaikars?

Tolls are charged to recover project costs and for maintenance. But commuters ask if it is fair to keep paying tolls for years on end.

When Jitendra Dixit, a journalist and author, who lives in Wadala, went by the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL) or Atal Setu, he found that it barely saved him 5-10 minutes from Mumbai to Pune in spite of paying a toll of Rs 250.  

The MTHL, which connects Navi Mumbai and south Mumbai, was inaugurated with great fanfare on January 12th 2024. But the toll fee seems to have put off a lot of people, because in its first month till February 13th 2024, only 8,13,774 commuters had used it. It collected revenue of Rs 1, 39, 585,310 with a daily average of over 26,000 vehicles. This is significantly short of the projected vehicular traffic of 70,000 daily and projected daily revenue of Rs 1 crore. 

In this series, the first explainer looked at reasons for levying tolls, how tolls charges are fixed, the process to discontinue. In this second and last part, we speak to citizens, transport analysts and policy makers to weigh in if the state is justified in charging the toll fee and how Mumbaikars feel about paying toll charges regularly.

Tolls: Easier but expensive commute

Like Jitendra, many commuters, who use one or more of the seven toll points in and around Mumbai, find that compared to the money spent on toll charges, the journeys are not always faster or more comfortable. Additionally, they are not able to avoid tolls as alternative routes many not be available.

“Most projects seemed to be aimed at the high-end users and may keep middle class users like me away, because of the toll charges. Using a four wheeler vehicle is getting costlier with multiple taxes and toll charges levied across the board. There is just no escaping them, whichever way one goes out,” laments Jitendra. 

For some time, citizens have been registering their disappointment about various tolls in different ways. For example, Sanjay Tatke has raised a petition about “disproportionate toll charges” on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway on change.org. It states that the “current pricing structure lacks transparency and fairness, causing undue stress and financial strain on daily commuters.” 

In his petition, Sanjay mentions, “The government charges Rs 240 for just 37 km from Kalamboli to Khalapur, which equates to Rs 6.5 per km. However, for the entire stretch of 109 km, it is only Rs 320. This means that those exiting at Khalapur are being charged disproportionately. This disparity not only affects me but also thousands of other commuters who use this route regularly. It’s a significant financial burden that we’re forced to bear due to an unjust system.”

Expressway tolls: Too expensive for too long 

Citizens are increasingly questioning the system of levying a project-specific toll fees when multiple taxes are levied under various heads on vehicle owners. “Why should citizens be charged an additional toll fee when they pay a one time registration tax for vehicles, the annual permit fee for all commercial vehicles, the Goods and Services Tax (GST) over and above the fuel tax that is meant to fund transportation infrastructure,” questions activist Vivek Velankar, a petitioner demanding scrapping of toll charges on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. 

“Though the government has spent over Rs 2000 crore to build the Mumbai-Pune Expressway way back in 2002, it has since recovered over Rs 10,000 crore from tolls on this road, yet the toll collection continues,” he explains.  

The determination of the toll amount, Vivek says, is very random. While the 95 km on the Mumbai-Pune stretch costs Rs 320 at the rate of Rs 3.5 per km, Rs 350 is charged for 240 km on the Pune-Kolhapur stretch, while the 95 km stretch between Kolhapur-Belgaum is charged only Rs 100. 

“It is the most opaque area, no one quite knows what are the terms of concessions or what kind of traffic studies are done while determining the number of years by which time the investments are to be recovered. The entire thing is meant just to benefit the contractors,” he says. 

He also questions the practice of bringing in private agencies for toll collections. These agencies are asked to pitch an amount in advance, which escalates toll charges, as they keep extending the time period citing inability to recover toll claiming leakages. 

MTHL toll rates
Commuters often cannot afford the high toll charges, especially if they need to travel frequently. Activists urge for public transport on these link roads. Pic: MMRDA

Another petitioner, Pravin Wategaonkar, who has filed petitions bringing out separate and several irregularities in Mumbai-Pune Expressway toll contracts, says that the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) rules stipulate that only 40% of the last toll fee be levied, once the invested amount on an infrastructure project is recovered. However, no such cuts have been introduced despite recoveries completed in many projects. 

The government has completely closed all options of travel on non-tolled roads between Mumbai and Pune thus forcing people to pay tolls, he points out. 

Read more: The causes and fixes to traffic in Mumbai: A discussion

Should the user pay? 

Transport analysts, who are involved in the process of transport infrastructure financing and passenger facilities, have a slightly different perspective. 

AV Shenoy of Mumbai Mobility Forum argues that a user must pay for the benefits he gets. “Why should an average taxpayer bear the cost of premium, high-end projects like the MTHL or a Sea-Link, which is used by only  45,000 vehicles daily?”

Sudhir Badami, who was part of the MMRDA’s toll determination committee for the MTHL, says that a higher toll fee should be levied to discourage car usage. He says the surplus revenue should be utilised to develop public transportation infrastructure. He had recommended Rs 500 as toll for the MTHL as against the current toll charge of Rs 250 set by the government.

The Maharashtra government, which manages the Atal Setu, had overruled the rate of Rs 500 as recommended by the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) to avoid attracting public ire on the eve of the elections

In fact, when the MTHL was inaugurated, there were more concerns about the toll amount than about the features of this 21.8 km bridge that was meant to be a major time saver for those travelling between Mumbai and Navi Mumbai. 

The Maharashtra government has stated that the MTHL toll charges would be reviewed by the end of 2024. Jitendra, who follows the political scenario in the state, is convinced that the government will increase the toll once the election season is over by the end of 2024.  

Transparent toll policy; revenue for public transport 

Legislator Rais Sheikh feels that toll-funded projects are an internationally accepted model but its implementation is the key concern here. “Toll collections must be reasonable, digital (not manual) and transparent. Recovery time limit should be set and tolls must be stopped once the project costs are recovered. In the absence of a stringent, transparent mechanism in place, as is the case in India currently, it becomes a license to loot.”

“Every transportation infrastructure project should be considered as a contributor for mobility services of public transportation so that funds can be continuously generated. How else can we generate funds for public transportation projects? Infrastructure costs cannot come only from annual taxes,” says Sudhir Badami. 

“There should be no shortage of funds for adequate public transportation. Our dictum should be – pay as you use. In fact, we should de-link toll collection from repayment schedules of projects. Besides, the point is, who are we taxing, we are taxing a person who is capable of paying.” 

Most commuters continue to pay tolls at entry points of the city and on special roads like the MTHL and the Bandra Worli Sea Link. But the high charges inconvenience them and also often dissuade them from using these routes. 

Do you pay toll regularly to commute from your residence to work or for any other travel? What are your thoughts about the toll charges? Please share with us at mumbai@citizenmatters.in.

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