Or so goes the commercial for the new toll booth in Dubai (named 'Salik', meaning open/clear). Now, I don't currently live in Dubai, and neither do I go there very often. However, the implications of this system to all of us in the surrounding region are probably bigger than we expect.
If you aren't aware of it yet, Dubai is a booming city. People are flocking in from all parts of the world, and even though the Government of Dubai had forseen this and built a pretty darn good infrastructure system to handle the incoming crowds, they really didn't count on the influx reaching the level it currently is at. And with that, comes a list of problems, one of the most obvious when you land in Dubai and drive around (try to?) is the unbelievable amount of traffic.
Back during the 5 years I lived in the UAE, I saw traffic problems turn from mere annoyances into outright "bang-your-head-on-the-dashboard-and-hope-to-die" situations. Hell, when I first arrived in 1998, a drive from Sharjah to Dubai in the mornings used to take around half an hour or so. Before I left in 2003, it used to take closer to an hour and twenty minutes. I'm pretty terrified (yes, terrified) to think what it would be like now.
And obviously in the past 4 years since i've left, traffic has blown up even more, and the Dubai government has started to think of alternative ways of battling this.
So here's their quick-fix; introduce toll-booths on the biggest sources of congestion, currently Shaikh Zayed Road and Garhoud Bridge. The tolls started 8 days ago (July 1st) and it seems to have worked actually; a few days after introduction, the unbelievable congestion usually existent on Garhoud Bridge has been considerably reduced, but the benefits on Shk Zayed Road are still to be felt.
You would assume more piling up traffic as people stop to pay the tolls, but the way the booth works is pretty clever too; you sign up for an electronic badge affixed to your car, with a prepaid balance, and the toll is automatically deducted as you drive through the booth - no need to stop and look for change to pay a booth attendant. You top up the badge as the balance gets low (you can check your balance on the website, or recieve SMS alerts when it reaches a certain level).
Negative points? As drivers start to spill into the surrounding roads and areas in order to avoid the tolls, those areas have started to get more and more congested. A problem is of course the residential areas surrounding Shk Zayed Rd, which have started to get pretty jammed. Also, some of the alternative routes to get around have not been completed yet, so people are either forced to pay the toll or take much longer routes.
Another problem is the registration; although a pretty advanced system overall, the registration is not done online, or through a computer. No, its actually done by filling out a paper form at one of the local gas stations near the highway, and submitting it to recieve your badge. This has caused jams as people queue up to recieve their badges, either to find out they have already run out of them, or to find no photocopier to submit their vehicle registration card. Add to that the fact that the authorities now have to manually input all the forms, estimated at a few hundered thousand and growing.
Now, how is this relevant to us in Bahrain, or anyone in the surrounding region? Well, if you haven't noticed, Dubai is the model city that all countries around it try to follow. Dubai jumps, they jump. Dubai ducks, they duck. And now, Dubai, the tax free haven, has finally introduced a pretty direct tax on people using its roads. Sure, its there to reduce congestion on the main roads, and generate more income for new infrastructure projects, but its a tax nonetheless. And you can bet your sweaty GCC passport (or visa) that that the surrounding countries are going to introduce taxes pretty soon. Not necessarily taxes on major roads or highways, but any form of tax is applicable.
Yes, Salik has been criticized by many commuters, claiming that it hasn't fixed the problem, shifted it to somewhere else, or only created more problems. Some claim that it isn't fair, having to pay the same toll if you had 10 people in one vehicle, or one person, whether you were driving a tiny 2-seater or a truck, or if you were a poor labourer trying to make it to work to earn a living or a rich billionaire going to Dubai to spend a few thousand dollars for a good time.
Either way, I think it was a good start, and even though it wasn't launched as well as it should have been, it is still progress. Other measures need to be implemented to bring down congestion, and speaking of Dubai, Bahrain also needs to start moving on some strong traffic-control measures before we start turning into the next Cairo. Aside from the other available solutions for congestion, and I have a LOT in mind, we need to start looking at this whole tax situation, and start to prepare for it.
Toll booths are just the beginning.