People will still pay if toll is abolished, says Dr M

KLANG: Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad today defended Putrajaya’s announcement on the proposed takeover of highway concessions and the replacement of toll with “congestion charges”, saying even if commuters are not charged toll, the government will still have to pay for it using taxpayers’ money.

“I acknowledge that there will be criticism from the people about tolls not being abolished.

“But they must understand. Even if they don’t pay the toll, the government still has to pay for it, and this will come from the taxpayers’ money. In the end, the people pay, even if it is through the government,” he said at a press conference after opening Metrod Holdings Bhd’s continuous cast copper rod plant.

The four highways in question are the Lebuhraya Damansara Puchong (LDP), Sistem Penyuraian Trafik KL Barat (Sprint), Lebuhraya Shah Alam (Kesas) and the Smart Tunnel.

Putrajaya announced yesterday that it was in talks with Gamuda Bhd to do away with tolls along the four highways.

Mahathir said for Putrajaya to acquire the highways, the money would come from taxes paid by the people.

“The roads have to be repaired. The government, not the concessionaire, pays for that, too,” Mahathir said.

“This means that part of the taxes should be used to maintain the roads. It means the government will have less money for other projects which are needed.”

It was also reported that the congestion charges, according to the plan, are to be levied for six peak hours daily.

The plan proposes that commuters pay as before during peak hours, with a 30% discount during off-peak hours and no charges from 11pm to 5am.

Mahathir said there would be no charges from 11pm to 5am as fewer people travel during that time.

He added that people would likely choose these hours to travel and thus benefit from the reduction in charges.

“But to do away with all the charges would make it too expensive. We need to buy tolled roads, but when you buy, you have to raise money and service the loans you raise.

“Therefore, we are trying to reduce the amount of money that we have to pay to acquire highways. This means we go stage by stage and step by step.”

When asked whether there was a chance that the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project would be retained if Malaysia struck the right deal with China, he said they would continue “if the price is right”.

He added, however, that both governments have yet to agree on a price.

“This railway project is very costly – RM55 billion. It will take us 30 years to repay the loan. We will be saddled with interest amounting to RM140 billion.

“We cannot afford that. Therefore, we are trying to reduce the cost, or if possible, postpone the implementation of the project,” he said.

The Pakatan Harapan chairman added that it was time the government ensured the money was well spent as it had other debts to pay.

“These were incurred by the previous government, and now they are telling us how to run the country.

“When they ran the country, they did not do a good job. They accumulated so much debt that the country has to either spend all its revenue to pay those debts or run the risk of facing bankruptcy charges,” he said.

Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah was recently reported as saying that Malaysia was making progress in renegotiating the rail project and that they were now in the last mile of talks.