The new Minister of Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda, Raquel Sánchez, will resume at the beginning of the political course the debate on the plan sent by the Government to Brussels last spring for the charge for the use of the highways, until now free, to from 2024. The aim is to articulate a pay-per-use model that finds the maximum possible consensus among political forces, administrations and social agents to provide a solution to the growing deficit of conservation and maintenance of the extensive state road network and, in particular, high capacity roads (highways and highways).
The plan, unveiled last May, raised the ire of several presidents of autonomous communities, the full political opposition and even Podemos, a partner in the PSOE government. These resistance forced the former Minister of Transportation, José Luis Ábalos, to back down and downplay the document, ensuring that this payment model would not be implemented in the absence of consensus. The calendar sent to Brussels foresaw that the text would be raised in the first half of 2021 to the Council of Ministers for a first reading, a forecast finally aborted by the controversy, informed sources familiar with the negotiation.
To silence the discussion, Ábalos made any payment project for the use of state highways subject to three conditions: majority political consensus, agreement with the transport sector for being the most affected, and implementation never before 2024 so as not to halt the economic recovery.
Now, with the waters calmer, the new minister wants to reopen the debate by making the greatest number of political forces co-responsible in it and, incidentally, launching a message to Brussels to control public spending, at a particularly delicate moment with the debt growing at record levels month by month and with a runaway deficit. One of the arguments of Raquel Sánchez to return to the load with this unpopular proposal is that the percentage of payment of the high capacity network in Spain (15%) is much lower than the European average. The other justification is the environmental one since, according to the Executive, road transport is responsible for around a third of the emission of greenhouse gases, so the “polluter pays” criterion must be applied. Finally, it also wants to make the public see that the current model creates territorial imbalances since the toll is more implanted in some autonomous communities compared to others, a claim shared by the nationalist Government of the Generalitat de Catalunya.
In the Ministry of Transport, they insist that they are trying to find a “fair, balanced and sustainable model”, but that “there is no concrete proposal yet,” department sources informed this newspaper.
End of tolls on the AP-2 and AP-7
The reopening of this debate paradoxically coincides with the end of the toll in various sections of the AP-2 and AP-7 toll roads whose concession expires this Wednesday, September 1, in fulfillment of the promise made by the Government of Pedro Sánchez to beginning of its mandate in 2018 that it would release all payment tranches upon expiration of its concession. Precisely, the gratuitousness of these sections aggravates the deficit in conservation, since it will be the State that will be responsible for the cost of maintenance of the released sections that until now were paid for with tolls and assumed by the concession companies. It is estimated that there is an accumulated deficit in the maintenance of state roads close to 8,000 million euros, which is not offset by the annual amount allocated by the General State Budgets (1,200 million in 2021).
Very few details are known about the project, included in the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan sent by the Government to the European Commission. Under the pay-per-use philosophy, the plan foresees that the toll affects all users, both private drivers and carriers, and both nationals and foreigners. Aware that the measure will be very unpopular, the Government wishes to carry out an “awareness and sensitization” campaign among carriers and the population regarding the need to execute the payment. In addition, it suggests introducing “reductions or bonuses to certain economically less favored groups, or habitual users in certain sections”. A point that particularly affects carriers, for whom Transportes undertakes to seek regulatory formulas that ensure that the cost is assumed by the cargo contractor and not by the trucker, although without specifying what that mechanism would be.
The payment would initially apply to the 12,000 kilometers of high-capacity roads (highways, expressways and multi-lane roads) of the State from 2024, but the plan opens the door for, in the future, the payment is extended to the 5,200 kilometers of high-capacity roads that depend on other administrations, in particular, the autonomous communities.
There is nothing concrete about the tolls to collect, and the figures leaked by the Seopán concessionaire employers are still speculations. The Ministry bets on “symbolic” prices, which can vary between 1 and 1.5 cents per kilometer for cars and around five cents for trucks. Thus, traveling from Madrid to Barcelona would cost between 6.2 and 9.3 euros; from Madrid to Valencia, a maximum of 5.4 euros and from Córdoba to Seville, 2.15 euros. But the sources consulted insist that these prices are still theoretical exercises based some on studies by Ineco, the public engineering company, and commissioned by previous governments of the PP, which also considered the charge for circulating on the highways.
Electronic payment or bullet
There are several models of payment for use of the highways. But given the length of the network and the complexity of the collection, the most likely model is electronic payment. This consists of the installation of electronic detection gantries on the highways (approximately every 50 kilometers) and on the access and exit roads to them, which read the information sent by small transponders installed in the vehicles (transponders on board) each time they cross them, automatically remitting a charge against the car owner’s current account, without his actively participating at any time in the process. The minimum initial investment estimated to implement this system would exceed 1,000 million euros.
The Generalitat de Catalunya studied the introduction of a vignette, a kind of annual flat rate to be able to circulate freely on the toll roads without having to overcome barriers, four years ago. Now that proposal has been frozen in the absence of a decision on the state model. The vignette is not strictly a pay per use, because the same amount is paid for a certain time regardless of the kilometers that are traveled.
The Government does not approve of the maintenance of different payment models in a single community. They demand the transfer of state-owned motorways to the Generalitat, but in the event that this claim is not yet consummated, they want to agree on the type of payment formula. Not surprisingly, despite the release of two sections of highways on August 31, it will continue to be the Administration with the highest number of toll kilometers after the State: 146, reports Dani Cordero.
“We hope that with the adoption of the new model the solution will be considered so that the four tolls of the Generalitat are included in it”, points out Jordi Puigneró, vice president of the Generalitat and person in charge of Infrastructures, in favor of taking advantage of the payment per use route and pollution advocated by the European Union. It is even made available to the Government to agree on a solution, but it also warns that the Generalitat will not impose payment systems on roads if the same position is not adopted in the rest of Spain. At the moment, the current living concessions, inaugurated between 1984 and 1992 in Catalonia, do not expire until 2037 and 2039.