Users of the 28-kilometre-long Delhi-Gurgaon expressway will not be required to pay toll tax for the next fortnight, thanks to an order the Punjab and Haryana High Court issued on Tuesday. The court was evidently annoyed with the failure of Delhi Gurgaon Super Connectivity Limited, which operates the expressway, to devise a more efficient method of toll collection and ease traffic congestion at the toll plazas. The order also directs the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) to convene a meeting within 15 days with the Haryana police and the concessionaire to find a solution to the chaos on the expressway. While this is likely to bring cheer to harassed motorists using the Delhi-Gurgaon expressway – over 250,000 vehicles daily cross its two toll plazas – the development has raised several issues with a bearing on the role of the regulator for the road sector and how operators should build, manage and maintain toll roads in the country.
At an operational level, the traffic problem at the Delhi-Gurgaon expressway arose out of a simple management failure. The concessionaire underestimated the flow of vehicles on this stretch and did not create adequate capacity at the toll plazas to ensure easy collection without causing traffic congestion. The primary purpose of an expressway – reduced travel time – was, thus, defeated by the inordinate delay at the toll collection points. Manual toll collection may have been efficient, but this could hardly be a substitute for increasing the use of e-tags on vehicles that would ensure faster movement of traffic at the toll plazas. It is not yet clear what efforts the concessionaire made to introduce incentives for motorists to switch over to e-tags, but the Delhi Metro’s successful experiments with an electronic travel card available at a discount should have shown the way forward to the management of the expressway. Running a toll plaza for an expressway is not rocket science. The NHAI and the concessionaire for the Delhi-Gurgaon expressway should not have allowed traffic mismanagement to escalate to a level that a court felt justified in intervening.
The implications of what happened at the Delhi-Gurgaon expressway for the toll roads in the rest of the country are no less serious. India has only about 1,000 kilometres of expressways on which toll taxes are collected by the operators. The 12th Plan is expected to put in place a programme for constructing over 18,600 kilometres of toll roads with access controls. Such a massive expansion of toll roads will bring a commensurate improvement in the flow of traffic only if adequate attention is also paid to the mechanisms the concessionaires use for collecting the toll. The proposed national expressway authority, which will get these road projects executed under the build-operate-transfer mode, should first ensure that projections of traffic flows for each of these stretches are not underestimated. Moreover, it should force concessionaires to employ effective and electronic methods of toll collection. And if for some reason traffic congestion around the toll plazas threatens to slow down vehicular movements, it should promptly step in with remedial measures instead of waiting for an adverse court order to fix the problem.