By Christopher Tan
A DOCTORED photo of a Singapore road with Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) gantries lined up as far as the eye can see has been making the rounds via e-mail. It is accompanied by a caption that reads: Singapore 2020.
The thing that makes the lark especially funny - or unfunny depending on your perspective - is its element of truth.
Using a vehicle in Singapore is an increasingly costly proposition, even though sticker prices have dropped significantly in the last two decades.
Today, car prices are close to what they were back in the late-1980s, thanks to decreases in registration fees and duties. You would be hard pressed to come up with another commodity that costs as much today as it did 20 years ago.
But the cost of driving a car has gone up. From fuel to parking, insurance to repairs - everything linked to the running of a car has become more expensive.
That includes ERP charges, which could well soar as 16 more operational gantries are added to the network this year, bringing the total to 71.
Not only that, charges per gantry are likely to rise faster as a new definition of congestion sets in. In the new regime, new gantries will be erected or ERP rates will be raised as soon as more than 15 per cent of vehicles do not move at prescribed speeds on any given road.
The bottom line? Motorists will pay more to use the roads. In some cases, a lot more. Last year, ERP revenue amounted to $98 million - or an average of $115 per vehicle. The LTA expects the new gantries will raise this by $70 million to $168 million - or an estimated $192 per vehicle.
But as in the past, the Government is offsetting the higher charges by granting a 15 per cent cut in road tax for all vehicles, starting in July. This is on top of an 8 per cent reduction last September.
At the same time, the Additional Registration Fee - the main car tax - will be cut by 10 percentage points.
Both tax cuts will cost the national coffers $310 million a year. This is small potatoes compared with the $14 billion the Government is spending on new road infrastructure up to 2020; and $40 billion on MRT projects to be completed in the same time frame.
The goal? To have 70 per cent of journeys in the morning peak made on public transport - from 63 per cent today.
Why? So that our roads don't clog up like they clog up in many other cities in the world.
The switch won't be overnight, though.
For starters, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) expects only 6,000 daily car trips to be reduced initially by the slew of new ERP measures - or less than one per cent of the three-million-plus car trips made a day.
The keyword here is 'initially'.
With the new definition of congestion kicking in, more roads could have gantries in the future.
And it does not matter if it is day or night. Evening ERP will be increasingly commonplace, even if it does not hit the economy by resulting in people getting to work late or delays in goods being delivered.
LTA chief executive Yam Ah Mee says there are motorists who, after a long day at work, want a smooth and quick drive home. Hence evening ERP.
In that case, why are off-peak cars allowed to contribute to congestion from 7pm when ERP stays on for up to 10.30pm? Sure, ERP applies to these 34,000 red-plated cars too, but their owners enjoy hefty upfront tax rebates too.
The argument here is not for off-peak car usage to be further restricted, but for a relook at the necessity of ERP at 10.30pm.
That incongruity aside, it is clear that ERP will be increasingly inescapable for those who drive - wherever they drive. The LTA is now working on a gantry-less system that makes use of satellite-based global positioning system. When that system is ready - foreseeably in 10 years' time - ERP can be islandwide.
By then, it would be possible to fine-tune charges based on vehicle type and location as well as distance travelled. When that happens, how much would average daily ERP charges be?
The Government gave an indication back in 2000. It said that if ERP were to be implemented islandwide and beyond the morning peak hours, the charges should be equivalent to a day licence an off-peak car owner has to buy if he wishes to drive outside the prescribed hours.
Today it is $20.
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