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Wednesday Jan 11, 2012

'The truth about Chappies toll plaza' - Robin Carlisle

It is understandable that Hout Bay and Noordhoek residents should be aggrieved by the "Chappies" toll road and all the problems that have accompanied it.

The whole process leading to the barring down of the upper slopes and finally to the toll road was, in my view, a disastrous technical decision, and I said so repeatedly while I was in opposition. The contract that brought the toll into being was extremely prejudicial to the province, the picnickers, the hikers, the tourists and those who use it on their way to and from work.

Thus, when I became the MEC, I inherited a binding contract that had been conceived in sin or insanity - there is no other possibility. The pass was more often closed than not. The concessionaire not only had the power to close the pass at will, he was also liberally paid by the province even while the pass was closed. All of this was courtesy of previous ANC governments.

I was determined to renegotiate the contract to eliminate its worst aspects. With the aid of the new majority interest in Entilini and with the assistance of the National Treasury, we were able to amend the contract to one that is significantly more beneficial to the users, the taxpayer and the province. The province will get back the R60m-odd it has coughed up for so-called "designated" events and it now decides whether the pass is closed or not.

The province will, over time, not only recover all present and future costs - including its contribution to the toll plaza - it will also benefit by a share of profits from the contract.

A 12-year project to remove alien vegetation and replant fynbos on the high peaks (which should have been done years ago) is now being implemented by Sanparks.

Motorists will be aware that except for a few short weather events, the pass has not been closed since the agreement was signed.

We have thus sought to mitigate a bad situation, and to the greatest degree this has been achieved.

Therefore it was surprising to be confronted by a series of Cape Times articles and an editorial claiming to have unearthed "new" truths about "Chappies", most of which were seriously inaccurate.

The current furore around "Chappies" and the toll plaza is even more remarkable in that nothing is being done that was not known about before and which was not subject to the most extensive public participation yet visited on any provincial project.

These revelations based themselves to a disappointing degree on hearsay, exaggerations and inaccuracies. Let me reassure your readers on three points:

  • 1. The Cape Times headline: "Toll road company to build R54m luxury office block on Chapman's Peak Drive."

    The clear impression conveyed - and certainly understood by the public - is of a great office rearing up the side of the mountain. This is incorrect. The Cape Times describes the plaza as luxurious and massive. This also is incorrect. Contrary to the report, there will be only 20 people working on the tolls and in the office at any given time - and not 60.

    The alleged "office block" is a two-storey building, each floor 200m in extent.

    It is designed not to be intrusive, and, by way of example, it would not be visible from Hout Bay harbour.

    The cost of the toll booths and the "office" building is about R13m. This includes strongrooms and a waste water plant. Other costs include the roadways (R10m); landscaping (R1m); electronic equipment (R6m); electricity and lighting (R2.5m). It will have offices, control rooms and a meeting room.

    The total cost is capped at R54m, but is likely to be less.

    The province's share of the cost will be recovered in full over time. The attractive and environmentally appropriate new toll plaza will be built into the unsightly quarry on the mountain, and will mitigate what is the ugliest feature on the mountain.

    Construction is not happening at the expense of pristine fynbos, or any other protected fauna.

  • 2. The Cape Times headline: "Upper storey of block designed for parties, say residents." This is also not true. The Cape Times gives its source as Len Swimmer of the Hout Bay Residents Association. At a meeting of his association to which he invited me last year, and at which three of his members were present, he made a similar allegation. When I asked for his source, he told me that "somebody" had told him.

  • 3. "Free day pass to Chappies to be scrapped."

    While there is, and always has been, a provision in the contract for all vehicles passing through the toll gates to be charged, there has been an informal agreement that bona fide picnickers and hikers would not be charged on the Hout Bay side until the completion of the plaza.

    In 2008 the then-ANC MEC agreed in terms of the Record of Decision to discontinue the day pass system. This provision has not been implemented.

    Clauses 16.1 to 16.4 of the contract govern the future of day passes. They will continue to be issued unhindered for at least the next year.

    The new plaza is sited more than a kilometre higher up the mountain, and many picnic sites and hiking routes will fall outside the toll section.

    I am not in favour of the removal of day passes, which can be implemented only with my concurrence.

    Informal negotiations have started with the toll company to find a solution in the best interests of all stakeholders, and particularly the people of Cape Town, to whom the mountains belong.

    While most of the plaza, about 75 percent, will be built on provincial land, a small piece of Table Mountain Park land - nearly all of it a quarry - will also be used.

    The legality of the approval to construct on the portion of SANParks land is being challenged, and is best left to the courts.

    However, the comparison with the small piece of land excised for the Hospital Bend-N2 upgrade is entirely fallacious.

    That land was owned by the Cecil John Rhodes Estate, which is governed by its own and entirely different act of Parliament.

    Few projects have been subjected to the extent and intensity of public participation that scrutinised the toll plaza.

    Commencing in 2003, the environmental impact assessment triggered widespread participation, in which Mr Swimmer and his association were fully involved.

    The national minister of environmental affairs enforced a second round of public participation in 2005, in which Mr Swimmer and his association were again fully involved. Finally, there was an appeal process that allowed for further input from interested and affected parties.

    At the time, the Cape Times reported on all these processes.

    Interestingly, the Hout Bay association, which now expresses such outrage about the plaza, did not object to the Record of Decision in its favour in 2005.

    Despite this, your editorial yesterday repeats most of the inaccuracies of its earlier articles, and goes on to say "there was no public announcement about the move".

    Outrage is a very overworked word in journalistic terms, so let me confine myself to expressing disappointment that the Cape Times should make such an obviously inaccurate statement.

    Like most Capetonians, I would never have wanted a Chappies toll, catch nets and underpasses.

    However, once the upper cliffs were tampered with and after the uncontrolled alien flora was burnt off some 10 years ago, the pass became significantly more dangerous. This necessitated the current protective measures.

    This was the legacy of administrations.

    There is now no possibility that the huge costs of maintaining the safety of the pass can be met without tolling.

    "Chappies" is, by a wide margin, the most expensive road in the province.

    Despite all the measures we have introduced, two thirds of the pass rests on soft and eroding Cape sandstone, which makes Chappies the most vulnerable of our provincial treasures.

    Setting aside fairy stories about luxury and parties, the vexed issue is whether the office area of the plaza could have been sited elsewhere. From an efficiency point of view this is undesirable.

    Toll offices are usually positioned close to a major toll gate, as at Huguenot.

    The plaza and gates are designed for minimal visual impact, and also to obscure the quarry.

    More important, the plaza is the product of a very detailed Record of Decision, and subject to a complex private-public partnership contract. To undo it now exposes the risk of unravelling everything that has been achieved and regressing to the bad old days of conflict between the partners, more frequent closure of the pass, and significant new expense to the taxpayer.

    This administration has met its promise of reopening Chappies and renegotiating a more favourable contract, saving the taxpayer more than R84m in the process.

    The Cape Times ambush of yesterday and today reminded me that few good deeds go unpunished.

    Robin Carlisle

    Carlisle is transport MEC for the Western Cape.

    Cape Times

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