Motorists using the upgraded Thika Superhighway will start paying road toll next year as the government moves to raise funds for maintenance costs.
The Kenya National Highways Authority (KENHA) director-general, Meshack Kidenda, on Monday said the level of upkeep needed for the highway would not be met by proceeds from the Road Levy Maintenance Fund for which motorists are charged Sh3 for every litre of petrol.
“The technology and materials used on Thika road call for high cost of maintenance,” Mr Kidenda said.
The Road Levy Fund raised Sh25 billion last year, nearly four times the Sh6.6 billion when the levy was introduced in 2001.
Mr Kidenda said a private firm to manage the road and which would be charging users the fee would be picked early next year despite the lack of an alternative route for users who cannot afford the fee.
It is envisaged that regular road users like residents who have to access their homes and workplaces via the highway would be given chits exempting them from the toll or granting them subsidies.
The financing model will be one of the key determinants on who will be picked as well as a track record in profitably manning big public facilities for a fee.
That leaves the field for Kenyan firms fairly limited to local firms already offering car park management for big utilities like hospitals and airports.
Potential interest could also come from firms handling bigger utilities like ports and railways.
With the help of the concessionaire, revisions would be made to existing laws so that users who cause damage to the highway especially during accidents are made to pay through their third party insurance covers.
The road was repaired at a cost of Sh31 billion in lots by three Chinese firms — China Wuyi, Sino Hydro and China Shangli — and has been handed back to the government in readiness for commissioning by President Kibaki on Friday.
Initially, the road was expected to cost Sh27 billion but this rose because of a weak shilling and additional works like the three lanes on Juja Road which were initially planned as double lanes, Mr Kidenda said.
The road’s completion initially reduced travel time between Nairobi and Thika from an average of 90 minutes to just 30 minutes but has recently been beset by jams which Mr Kidenda attributed to temporary speed bumps.
Sources at the Ministry of Roads however, said the jams arise from shortcuts taken during construction to avoid further escalation of costs especially at the section between Guru Nanak Hospital and Muthaiga Police Station in Nairobi.
It is understood that a number of international firms have expressed interest in the concession even as the old problem of vandalism awaits the winner.
“The problem of vandalism which started even before the contractor pulled out of the site must be addressed urgently,” said Mr Kidenda, adding that the vandals have targeted road signs, barriers and lamp posts.
The work of the firm which wins the concession is already cut. Its collection efficiency will be monitored closely by the Treasury which is seeking extra cash to defray part of the loan from China and African Development Bank during the road’s construction.
But in a country which has become overly litigious following the expanded bills of right introduced in the 2010 Constitution, experts have warned that the concession could run into problem for introducing toll charges on Thika road without creating an alternative route.
While the proposed Jomo Kenyatta International Airport-Juja-Thika road is seen as the alternative route for those unwilling to pay toll charges, it would take several years to complete.
“Generally, the state can cite the superior quality of Thika road and the high cost of maintenance to demand toll charges but a good transport system needs to provide options to road users,” said Zachary Gariy, a senior policy analyst at Kenya Institute of Public Policy Research and Analysis.
The road has tolling booths a few kilometres after Ruiru town which would target various classes of users including motor bikes and personal cars.
Prof Gariy proposed an open tolling system where people choose to pay for use of a road because of its superior quality as opposed to lack of an alternative route.
The superhighway is the first section of the Kenya-Ethiopia road that the government has pledged to build to open up the northern region.
The upgrade of the Turbi–Moyale section to bitumen standards will be officially launched tomorrow, another milestone towards improving the Northern corridor running from Cape Town to Cairo.