MUMBAI (TIP): MNS chief Raj Thackeray on February 13 wangled a promise from CM Prithviraj Chavan to shut down 22 toll plazas immediately and unveil a new policy before the poll model code of conduct starts in the first week of March. After several more assurances in a two-hour meeting, Thackeray said he was calling off his morcha scheduled for February 21, but kept up the heat on the government by exhorting citizens not to pay toll till the new policy. The CM admitted serious irregularities in toll collection and said a new policy awaits the cabinet’s nod.

ST buses would be exempted from toll, he added, and offered the same hope for BEST, which could reduce fares. A comprehensive policy submitted to the government suggested several people-friendly measures like toll booths only beyond 5km from civic limits, time-bound projects, calculation of toll on road length, etc. After Feb 13 meeting, officials said other than withdrawal of 22 toll booths which are recovering less than Rs 10 crore by paying Rs 124 crore, the state is checking if it could eliminate 20-25 more toll booths by spending another Rs 350-400 crore. It would be discussed at a cabinet meeting soon. “The state can spend a maximum Rs 500-600 crore to buy back toll booths in the interest of the angry people. Around 80 major toll booths will have to be retained as buying them out would be an unaffordable burden on the state,” said a senior official.

Thackeray offered his suggestion to the government to ease toll pain: divert the Rs 100 crore meant for a mammoth statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji in the Arabian Sea. The meeting on Thursday took place as the CM had invited Thackeray for talks at Sahyadri, the state-owned guest house at Malabar Hill, following which the MNS leader had called off a rasta roko in Mumbai on Wednesday. Thackeray was accompanied by party legislators and a battery of toll experts led by the fiesty Sanjay Shirodkar. PWD minister Chhagan Bhujbal and MSRDC minister Jaydutt Kshirsagar submitted their viewpoints on toll before Chavan spoke.

The meeting drew disparaging comments from other parties. “This is Raj Thackeray’s face-saving exercise,” said a BJP functionary. Both the Shiv Sena and the BJP have described the entire sequence of events of the last four days as “match-fixing” between Chavan and Thackeray. Asked about the success of his party’s agitation, Thackeray said: “Anna Hazare had also written to the government against toll. But since our party’s first agitation, 65 toll booths have been shut. This means the government understands our language, and not that of Hazare’s.”

At the meeting, Chavan unveiled some more measures to provide relief to travellers and to make toll collection more transparent. He announced exemption to ST buses from toll. “We have written to the Centre… We have fine-tuned a new formula under which the state will claim 75% share from additional toll collection, while the private contractor will get 25%. There is need for greater coordination between the public works department, the national highway authority and the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation,” the CM said.

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The MNS delegation pointed out that the Khed-Shivapuri toll booth on the Pune-Kolhapur road had recovered toll from 19 lakh vehicles in three years and was supposed to be closed by January 26 this year. But it was still in operation. Chavan said an independent decision would be taken on booths where recovery has been completed following a heavy rise in the number of vehicles. The CM asked people to come up with evidence against toll posts recovering money beyond their mandate and assured action.

He added that future toll projects would be mandatorily based on electronic vehicle count to help decide transparently when recovery should end. Also, private toll contractors will have to acquire land to set up user facilities along the state highways. Toll expert Shirodkar suggested measures like traffic sampling, internal audit and linking toll with the wholesale price index to streamline toll collection.

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