Reuters

Officials planned to use toll revenue, but a court ruled the fees illegal. This leaves the cash-strapped government in a lurch.

The massive ring highway around Johannesburg, South Africa, is a congested mess, and an expensive one to boot.

The government borrowed about $2.5 billion to upgrade the road and planned to recoup some of the cost with a fancy new toll system. The fees would range from about 1.5 rand to more than 50 rand (18 cents to $6 USD) depending on the type of car and the distance. For example, a 35 kilometer commute from downtown Johannesburg to the city's other prominent center, Sandton, would cost about $1.55 a day.

But last month (just two days before it was set to launch), a court ruling halted that plan indefinitely, leaving the government in something of a repayment pickle. 

The decision came after years of agitation by locals. Most recently, protestors took to the highway connecting Johannesburg and Pretoria, the country's administrative capital, clogging early morning traffic. A prominent morning radio DJ even showed up on a camel.

Activists argue that the fees would place an unmanageable burden on the city's poor. And for many commuters, there's no alternative transportation method. Its road network is a jumble and its World Cup-spurred bus rapid transit system and regional rail link are still very limited. The city's extensive and semi-informal minibuses operate as the de-facto public transit system, but they rely just as much on the ring highway to travel greater distances.

The government argues that somebody has to pay for the vast improvements. But right now, there's little they can do besides appeal the decision. Still, it's unlikely officials will give up on the plan. What choice do they have?

Photo credit: Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

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