Tackle toll issue in stages, MP tells Putrajaya

Dr Mahathir Mohamad says the government does not have the money to compensate the highway concessionaires.(Bernama pic)

PETALING JAYA: A PKR MP has defended Putrajaya over criticisms it failed to abolish tolls, which Pakatan Harapan had promised before the May 9 polls, arguing that the ruling coalition could tackle the issue in stages.

Subang MP Wong Chen said that for now, it is better to manage the maintenance cost of highways and eliminate any markups.

“With lower maintenance cost, it will be possible to stay with the current toll rates and, in some instances, reduce them,” he said.

Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad said recently the government was not able to remove highway tolls as it realised it had no money to pay off the concessionaires, adding that the PLUS highway alone would cost RM30 billion before it could become toll-free.

This led to Najib Razak hitting out at him for claiming that PH did not know how much it would cost them to abolish tolls.

Najib said the vast majority of the toll concessions were agreed upon and agreements signed during Mahathir’s first stint as prime minister.

He also said that when he was appointed the finance minister in October 2008, he declassified all the toll concession agreements which were previously under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) to ensure they were no longer a secret.

Najib said the public, which includes those who drafted the PH manifesto, would have access to such details.

He also claimed many DAP and PKR leaders had studied them.

Wong said while it was true the coalition was not privy to a lot of details prior to promising to abolish tools, they knew from Abu Sahid Mohamed – whose Maju Holdings Sdn Bhd is the concessionaire for Maju Expressway (MEX) – the road maintenance cost had been inflated.

He said what is “doable” now is to better manage the maintenance cost and eliminate any markups.

“With lower maintenance cost, it will be possible to maintain current rates and, in some instances, reduce the rates,” he told FMT.

Wong, who headed PH’s budget drafting committee whose proposals became part of the economic manifesto for the May 9 polls, said the coalition should look into tackling the toll issue in stages and do so carefully to maintain the sanctity of the contracts and not to impact the bond market.

IDEAS director Laurence Todd said it was fairly clear that the promise to abolish tolls would be a costly affair, with the previous administration stating, at one time, it would involve billions of ringgit.

He, however, appreciated the fact the Putrajaya has admitted it was indeed an expensive pledge to make and that they decided on prioritising other issues that affected the nation.

“So, not abolishing the tolls would not be my number one gripe with the government,” he said.

Todd also said that despite the government’s inability to abolish tolls, they are at least attempting to “maintain the spirit” of the promise with plans to reduce toll rates.