The battle between SA’s roads agency Sanral and civil society organisation Outa over Gauteng’s controversial e-tolling system is becoming heated as the two parties resort to increasingly strong measures to resolve the matter.

The cost of the 185km Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project escalated from R20bn in 2008 when it borrowed from the Public Investment Corporation, to about R48bn in 2017. It now stands at about R67bn. The agency has had to cut spending to make up for a R6bn hole resulting from the nonpayment of the tolls.

Outa has led the resistance to e-tolling and offers legal support to anyone who refuses to pay the electronically charged tolls, while Sanral is issuing summonses to defaulting motorists.

Sanral spokesperson Vusi Mona said earlier that summonses to recover about R500m have been issued so far.

Outa wants e-tolling scrapped altogether and has instituted a test case in court following an agreement with Sanral to consolidate four of its big claims. Outa says the case is intended to settle “legality challenges” to the e-tolling system.

Outa’s main claim is the transport minister’s approvals for the project were unlawful because he had not considered certain issues, including VAT collection, environmental concerns and the practicality of open-road tolling. Neither had the minister considered alternative methods of funding the project or whether motorists had reasonable alternative routes to the tolled freeways, said Outa.

It also questioned whether minister had either improperly abdicated his decision-making power by following a cabinet decision in July 2007 to approve the project.

Sanral meanwhile said it had presented options to the presidency and the ministers of transport and finance that would include coercive measures. These could include withholding vehicle licences, blocking car sales and interfering with insurance pay-outs.

But such steps were desperate threats that would be difficult to implement, Outa said on Wednesday. “For Sanral to suggest that motorists’ vehicle licenses will be withheld because of  e-toll debt, is ludicrous and illegal. Should they attempt to go down this road, Outa will engage with its legal advisors and the public to challenge these developments.”

The government has given mixed messages over the fate of e-tolling, with Gauteng premier David Makhura saying earlier this year that e-tolls have not worked. Transport minister Blade Nzimande said later that a decision to scrap them had not been made. Sanral said it was awaiting a political decision.