Taxis pass through Tianzhu toll collection station. Vehicles going toward the airport are only charged five yuan and are free of charge when heading downtown, starting July 1. Photo: Xinhua
The Capital Airport Expressway has become severely congested since toll fees were reduced or cut completely in the summer.
Traffic experts have said that while it was seen as a public service to reduce tolls, in terms of traffic management and ease of access to the Beijing Capital International Airport (BCIA), perhaps traffic authorities should have thought twice before abandoning the previous fee structure.
The city`s transport authority announced in June the toll fees for driving to terminals one and two at BCIA were to be lowered from 10 to five yuan ($1.58-0.79) per standard vehicle, while cars heading to the downtown could do so free of charge from July 1.
Statistics from the Capital Airport Highway Development Company (CAHDC) show that ever since the policy started, there have been 60,000 more vehicles per day on the expressway, a 40 percent growth in the third quarter compared to the second this year. This has meant "not only a longer commuting time to the airport, but also a rise in traffic accidents," CAHDC told the Beijing Morning Post.
"It`s not an `expressway` anymore, as so many vehicles use it when they come downtown from Miyun county, Shunyi and Huairou [districts] because it`s free and has less traffic lights," said Wang Hejie, a local taxi driver.
"Now I usually offer passengers a choice of routes to go to the airport to avoid missing their flight," Wang said.
As the toll for the Airport No.2 Expressway is still 10 yuan, meaning it is still mostly used for airport-bound traffic, the route has become more popular for travelers and commuters who are willing to pay for a quicker ride.
"If you happen to drive during the rush hour, it could be even worse," said Yu Xuan, a sales manager in a local IT company who is a frequent commuter on the expressway.
"Although taking the Capital Airport Expressway is a shorter cut, when you consider the congestion on it, a better and safer way would be to pay the 10 yuan," Yu said.
According to CAHDC, the rush hour on the busiest section of the airport expressway, Weigou to the Fifth Ring Road, currently starts as early as 6:30 am, lasting until 6:30 pm, whereas before it used to start at 4:30 pm.
The expressway was built in 1993, and toll fees were supposed to be charged by CAHDC until construction costs were covered. However, according to a 2008 National Audit Office report, the tolls it has collected total more than triple the initial investment they were supposed to pay for.
On June 14, five government departments, including the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Transport, issued a notice saying the toll fees should be reduced.
"People were appealing for more transparency about where the profit from the tolls was going, and asking to take down the tollbooths, but this is totally irrelevant when the toll charges on the airport expressway are meant to guarantee a better commuting efficiency," said Kong Lingbin, professor of China Academy of Urban Planning and Design.
"The policy makers should have thought that through that already," said Kong, who thinks that the worsening congestion and complaints about traffic are the natural consequences when a "priority system [for the airport] road" gets destroyed.
"There should be methods to make sure it`s used for airport-bound traffic as much as possible, not a road linking suburban districts to Beijing, and to lower toll charges here clearly is not proper, as the expressway was already congested," Kong said.
Beijing Traffic Management Bureau could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but in June, the Beijing Morning Post reported that authorities had made contingency plans like lining up alternative routes in case of emergencies.
"I`m afraid since it would be even harder for people to accept the toll charge coming back again, and who could guarantee the traffic would be a lot better?" said Wang.