Congestion tax proposal divides Yangon residents

A proposal to levy a “congestion tax” on cars entering downtown Yangon has prompted a fierce response from motorists, who say it will do little to reduce traffic and may even create more jams.

The debate was prompted by U Ba Myint, from the Yangon Supervisory Committee for Motor Vehicles, which is better known by its Myanmar acronym Ma Hta Tha. Last week he publicly recommended that the government impose a levy on cars entering the six downtown townships of Botahtaung, Kyauktada, Lanmadaw, Latha, Pabedan and Pazundaung.

He said the levy would discourage motorists from entering downtown for non-essential reasons.

“There are many ways to solve traffic jams, one of which is collecting a tax on cars. Many countries around the world are practising this system,” he said.

“Let’s assume that people come and eat something in downtown. It might cost K500. If they are taxed K500 when they enter downtown, they will surely reconsider whether to come.”

Yangon City Development Committee has been non-committal on the idea. Spokesperson U Hla Win said experts were “still discussing how to solve the congestion issue” and nothing had been decided.

“They don’t know exactly what the best way to approach the issue is,” he said, adding that they would first conduct a pilot before introducing any sweeping measures.

The proposal is the latest in a series of suggestions to ease Yangon’s traffic woes, which stem from a 2011 policy decision to ease taxes on imported cars. While making cars more affordable, it has resulted in hundreds of thousands of additional vehicles on Yangon’s underdeveloped road network.

As in most cities, the traffic jams are worst during morning and evening peak hours, but there is also little let-up during the day. So far the government and traffic officials have responded by building overpasses at busy junctions, improving some stretches of road, adding traffic lights and assigning traffic police to monitor intersections. They have also introduced a system to coordinate traffic lights, although there is no central control centre yet due to a lack of funding.

A number of major cities around the world employ congestion taxes, including London, Stockholm and Milan. Singapore was the first to introduce the scheme, back in 1975, charging motorists based on the size of vehicle and time of day.

Research appears to show that while congestion taxes have a positive short-term effect in terms of reduced private vehicle use and increased public transport patronage, traffic levels eventually return to normal.

However, the tax creates significant revenue that can be spent on improving infrastructure: In 2012-13 the congestion charge in London resulted in net revenue of £132.1 million (US$204.2 million at the current exchange rate). In most cases residents initially opposed the tax, but over time came to marginally support it, according to research collated by the publication Government Technology.

The response in Yangon has been mixed, although some have expressed concern about the government’s ability to efficiently and transparently carry out such a project.

“I think it is stupid idea,” said U Aung Soe from Mingalar Taung Nyunt township. “If they collect a tax, drivers will still enter by paying the tax. It is impossible [to reduce congestion through the tax] and it’s likely to cause so many problems.”

Taxi driver U Moe Thee from the Kyaukmyaung area of Tarmwe township said he was concerned that it would increase congestion due to drivers having to stop and pay the tax at a gate.

“There are so many other ways to solve this problem. If YCDC or Ma Hta Tha implement this plan, they will only be doing it to serve their own interests,” he said. “Based on how things normally work here, they will call a tender and a private contractor will do it.”

Even some officials from Ma Hta Tha question whether a congestion tax would be worthwhile.
Chair U Hla Aung said it would be “difficult” to introduce. “If the government does it, it will not happen any time soon,” he said.

But deputy chair U Hlaung Thaung Myint said toll gates could be positioned at entrances to downtown to collect the tax.

“Some people drive to downtown for no real reason – maybe just to eat something or go window shopping. That’s one reason why there are so many cars in downtown,” he said.

U Ba Myint added that the levy needed to be fair, and suggested that on days with lower congestion, such as weekends, it could be waived completely.

“We need to consider carefully how to collect the tax,” he said. “For example, it shouldn’t be collected for public transportation, because it will just mean commuters have to pay higher fares.”

Source: Myanmar Times

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