The Government will compensate Abertis this year with at least 1,291 million euros at the end of August 31 the concession of three sections of the Autopista del Mediterráneo or AP-7 (Barcelona-La Junquera, El Papiol-Montmeló and Barcelona-Tarragona), as stated in the Stability Plan sent to Brussels. The payment dates back to an agreement signed in 2006 by Magdalena Álvarez, Minister of Development of the Government of Zapatero, who agreed that the company would expand those roads in charge of the expected increase in traffic. But it also introduced a clause to compensate Abertis if these flows were not achieved at the end of the concession. A scenario that has occurred and for which the Treasury will have to pay the concessionaire, with the consequent increase in the public deficit in 2021.
The Government of Pedro Sánchez decided not to renew the toll road concessions as they expire, so that they would become free. This will happen next August 31 with the 340 kilometers of various sections of the AP-7 that link Tarragona with the French border, and which are now operated by Acesa, a subsidiary of Abertis. But in this case, the end of the concession hides an old conflict that is going to generate a painful bill for the state coffers. For a decade, Abertis, which belongs in equal parts to the ACS Group and the Italian Atlantia, has been in a lawsuit in the courts with successive governments so that the State complies with the compensation to which it committed in 2006 when it signed the agreement with the company.
By virtue of this agreement, Acesa carried out expansion and improvement works on these sections of the AP-7 and applied discounts on their tolls, trusting that the expected increase in traffic would offset these expenses. For its part, the State assumed that it would pay the difference if those optimistic traffic forecasts were not met.
With the PP in the Government, the Minister of Development, Íñigo de la Serna, did not agree with the calculation of the compensations. And in a Council of Ministers in July 2017, it determined that the concessionaire would only be compensated for the expected difference in traffic, but not for the business decline suffered by the financial crisis.
The matter has ended in court. And the Ministry of Transport now assures that a 2019 Supreme Court ruling rejected an Abertis appeal and, therefore, validates the interpretation made by the Council of Ministers in 2017. Consequently, it is only willing to pay 1,291 million compared to the 3,000 million claimed by the concessionaire company. Under this interpretation, the fall suffered by the crisis is considered an operational risk that the State does not have to bear.
On the contrary, Abertis maintains that the sentence did not go into the merits of the matter. And it explains that the Supreme Court will not pronounce itself until the concession ends and the final settlement of the compensation balance is proceeded. In other words, it interprets that the High Court gave a kick forward that must be resolved as of August 31, when the concession ends. Company sources indicated to this newspaper that “the invoice will be sent to the State at the end of the concession, with the pertinent calculations, since there is no judicial resolution that prevents it.” A subsequent ruling from the same court in February 2020 clarified to Abertis that it could not account for the compensation as a financial asset because it was not a right, but rather an expectation of collection.
Abertis asks for triple
For the moment, and therein lies the novelty, the Ministry of Transport headed by José Luis Ábalos, has admitted that it must compensate Abertis with 1,291 million, according to the document that the Government sent to Brussels last Friday. As that payment must be computed in 2021, the amount will increase the public deficit and debt. The payment to Abertis has a cost equivalent to half of the savings that the Government wanted to achieve for the State by eliminating the deduction in personal income tax for joint declaration of a marriage, an initiative that has been sent to the European Commission but which has later been retracted.
Despite this significant outlay from the taxpayer, the matter will continue to creep in the courts and can lead to an even higher bill. Abertis claims more than 3,000 million euros as compensation, an amount much higher than what the State agrees to pay it.
Specifically, the concessionaire evaluates in its latest calculation corresponding to 2019 the invoice to be paid at 2,951 million. Of these, 890 million correspond to compensation for investments made in the expansion and improvement of the highway. And the other 2,061 million are justified by the compensation due to the decrease in traffic. An amount that must still be increased by the compensation corresponding to the years 2020 and 2021, in which the traffic of the toll roads has sunk as a result of the restrictions due to the pandemic.
And the plan to put tolls on the highways?
The compensation to Abertis further fuels the controversy over the charge for the use of the state highways, which until now were free. On the one hand, the Sánchez government is freeing all concessions that are expiring from tolls; but on the other hand, the deficit for the maintenance of the high-capacity road network of the State is skyrocketing.
In December 2018, it already released the AP-1 toll from Burgos-Armiñón, after expiring its exploitation contract with Itínere. On January 1, 2020, it abolished the collection on two highways: the section of the AP-7 between Tarragona and Alicante and the AP-4 between Seville and Cádiz, upon concluding the concessions that Abertis had and reverting the ownership to the State.
The same path will follow at the end of August the route of the AP-7 that connects Barcelona with La Junquera and Tarragona, and that of the AP-2 Zaragoza-Mediterranean. In total, more than 1,000 kilometers to which must be added the eight broken highways (including the radial ones in Madrid), which have been rescued by the State and totaling another 500 kilometers.
However, the Government has committed to the European Commission to implement a payment system in the network of high-capacity roads (motorways and state highways), to finance their maintenance, which each year costs about 1,200 million euros . It will also allocate for this purpose the income from the concessions of service areas on these highways. The Recovery Plan includes this proposal to alleviate the deficit in the conservation of the state network, which according to the employer Seopan amounts to about 10,000 million. The Ministry of Transport has already clarified that this initiative is being considered in the medium term, and always looking for consensus and the way that carriers do not bear the charge.
Million-dollar compensation to the ACS group
If the State finally pays the compensation to Abertis, it will be the second public millionaire compensation obtained by a company owned by ACS. The Treasury had to face the payment of 1,400 million euros for the closure of Castor, the submarine gas warehouse located off the coasts of Tarragona and Castellón, which was built by Escal UGS, a company controlled by ACS 66.7%.
In addition, the compensation that claims for the Pertús tunnel, which connects Spain and France by AVE under the Pyrenees, is pending a judicial resolution, after the bankruptcy of TP Ferro, the ACS and Eiffage company that was awarded in 2003 the construction and exploitation of the work and, later, it was declared insolvent. The French and Spanish States had to assume the rescue of the project.
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