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Green light given for N2 toll road

Daily News - 5 March 2010

Related Article: * Toll tariffs to rise

 

The N2 Wild Coast toll road project has been given another green light after a decade-long controversy, but final approval could still be thwarted by strong opposition from Durban, the KZN legislature and other interest groups.
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The final environmental impact assessment (EIA) report, which will be released on Monday, recommends that the project should go ahead, despite findings that it would lead to several social, economic and environmental problems.

The decision to recommend approval follows strong opposition to the toll plan by eThekwini municipal manager Michael Sutcliffe, the KZN legislature and several business and industry leaders in Durban.

The opposition centres on a major new toll plaza near Amanzimtoti, which would raise the cost of commuting and doing business in Durban south.

Separate concerns about ecological damage and sense of place of the Wild Coast region have also been raised. The report, compiled by a consultancy group appointed by the SA National Roads Agency (Sanral), recognises that more than 7 000 people had voiced "overwhelming opposition" to the toll plan. In contrast, hundreds of Eastern Cape residents wanted the road to go ahead.

If approved, the project would shave about 75km off the distance between Durban and East London, but would also add more than 25 new toll-collection points on the N2, mostly in KZN. The environmental consultants who compiled the report concluded that the project would result in "substantial" - and in some cases irreversible - ecological damage to parts of the Wild Coast.

The final report has been submitted to the national Environmental Affairs Department following an EIA process that started nearly 10 years ago. The department is the official arbiter of the process and could take several months to reach a decision.

While the public consultation period has ended, the approval procedure also allows for a mandatory appeals process to Environment Minister Buyelwa Sonjica to cater for objections.

Sutcliffe said the official position of the eThekwini municipality and KZN was that the road "should not go ahead".

"The fact that the EIA recommends approval does not mean that the road will go ahead. It would be up to the leadership of the province to consider their response, but I'm sure they will remain against it."

In Sutcliffe's view, a more urgent priority for Sanral was to establish a dedicated trucking lane between Durban and Joburg.

The Wild Coast project was given the green light by the department in 2003, but that decision was overturned by former environment minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk a year later, when it emerged that the previous "independent" environmental consultants had financial links with companies that hoped to build the road.

The project was revived soon after, resulting in several proposals to change the original route favoured by Sanral. These proposals appear to have been given short shrift in the latest EIA.

According to an executive summary version of the report, the most significant economic benefits of the project would be felt in the Eastern Cape, but the consultants said it might be possible to make the project more acceptable by dropping the price of toll fees for KZN commuters and businesses. The report recognises the likelihood of widespread ribbon, strip or nodal development emerging along the new route, part of which would reduce the size of the proposed Pondoland Biosphere Reserve/National Park.

It would also lead to the loss or degradation of rare or threatened grasslands and other vegetation, as well as the reclassification of some species from "vulnerable" to "endangered" status.

"On the basis of the above criteria, the proposed new road is considered not ecologically sustainable." But it might be possible to mitigate against some of the more serious impacts by establishing a "biodiversity offset agreement", details of which are not in the report. It also recognises that several towns on the existing route would be bypassed by the new N2. These include Kokstad, Harding, Mount Frere, Qumbu and Mount Ayliff. These impacts are rated as being of "medium" significance.

However, the new road would also improve transport links in one of the poorest regions of the country and act as a catalyst for economic development.

"Along the section between Mthatha and the Mthamvuna River... the overwhelming opinions of people consulted was a need for greater access into the area... Overall, it is considered that the potential social benefits of the proposed project, as assessed along the entire route... would outweigh the potential negative impacts."

It suggests that economic benefits to agriculture, forestry, manufacturing, property development, real estate and other sectors could translate into around R15 billion in new business.

The release of the full report on Monday is expected to revive heated debates. Upper South Coast Anti-Toll Alliance member Ted Holden said the group had not had time to study the report. However, speaking in his personal capacity, Holden said the consultants' conclusions showed a "complete lack of independence".

"The consultants have also failed to highlight the many submissions made by our community, business and welfare organisations."

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