Malaysia's Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, facing a stiff battle to retain a seat in a Selangor by-election, announced yesterday that it is in talks with infrastructure firm Gamuda to take over four highways in the Klang Valley, and reduce toll charges.
The move is seen as a major political step to appease disgruntled voters who say that the nine-month-old government has failed to both reduce the cost of living and fulfil some of its electoral promises, including abolishing charges at tolled highways.
"Pakatan Harapan has promised in its election manifesto to take steps to acquire highway concessions and abolish toll collection in stages," the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) said in a statement, referring to the talks with Gamuda as "a first step" towards this.
The highways involved are the Lebuhraya Damansara Puchong, Sistem Penyuraian Trafik KL Barat, Lebuhraya Shah Alam and the SMART tunnel in Kuala Lumpur city centre.
The statement said that once the highways are taken over, the existing tolls will be abolished.
But vehicle users will have to pay a "congestion charge" equivalent to the existing toll fees for six peak hours a day.
During the off-peak period of between 11pm and 5am, commuters will travel for free. At other non-peak periods, commuters will pay discounted rates of up to 30 per cent off the existing toll rates.
The revenue collected from the congestion charge will go towards the operations and maintenance of the highways and repayment of borrowings, the PMO said.
Any surplus collected will be channelled into a fund to improve public transportation in Malaysia.
Apart from cost of living issues, many voters have become disenchanted with the PH government over missteps by its leaders, including the revelation that several ministers held fake degrees or had fudged their academic qualifications.
The decision to scrap the tolls comes ahead of a by-election in the state seat of Semenyih, in Selangor, next month.
The PH candidate is facing stiff competition to retain the seat against the opposition Barisan Nasional coalition.
Former premier Najib Razak said the toll announcement was politically motivated. "PH promised this to the people and they have been waiting for it, but since PH is announcing it during the Semenyih by-election campaign period, it appears as if it is simply fishing for votes," he was quoted as saying by The Malaysian Insight news site.