Three different entities are said to be eyeing the north-south highway cash-cow.
- EPF-UEM has just put in a RM23 billion bid for PLUS Expressways.
- MMC Corp (yes, MMC again) had offered to buy UEM Group Bhd, the parent company of PLUS.
- Asas Serba Sdn Bhd, which last year put in a RM50 billion proposal to take over PLUS and 21 other toll concessions.
PLUS is presently owned by
- UEM Group Berhad (which is owned by the government) 38.51 per cent
- Khazanah Nasional Berhad (owned by the Finance Ministry) 16.7 per cent (direct); 21.8 per cent (indirect via UEM)
- Employees Provident Fund Board 12.4 per cent
- Kumpulan Wang Persaraan (Diperbadankan) 6.7 per cent
On the face of it, among the three options so far, the EPF’s interest might seem the most logical as the profits would be channelled back to workers – though much would depend on the terms of the deal and the concession.
But there could be potential conflicts further on. Looking further ahead, what if a future government were to introduce better and faster inter-city rail services, thus improving long-distance public transport so that a journey from Penang to KL might take less than three hours? Wouldn’t projected profits from the North South Highway (and returns to the EPF and thus to workers) plunge?
On the other hand, the government could allow PLUS to raise tolls for the highways to encourage more people to take the new faster trains in the future. This could have a mixed impact on PLUS’ earnings (and returns to workers via EPF) – the higher toll rate compensating for the lower traffic volume (due to improved public transport).
The best bet would be for the government to take over the highways completely, without EPF inv0lvement. This way it could channel part of PLUS’ profits to finance public transport (including inter-city rail) across the country. It could also use the toll rates as a congestion pricing mechanism to encourage more people to use public transport. All this is assuming that the government is really serious about public transport and that the toll collected really does end up in improved public transport infrastructure. To facilitate this, the profits from PLUS should be channelled to a national public transport fund to finance public transport infrastructure.