Are toll motorways all they're cracked up to be?
In our small and crowded land of congested motorways, toll roads have often been held up as an example of how things could be done better. Tales of endless, straight, empty and un pot-holed motorways in France and Germany promise a better future for getting places, without getting a headache in the process. But now French environment minister Ségolène Royal has decided that the toll system isn’t working properly, and has proposed that toll company profits be slashed by reduced costs and becoming toll-free at weekend.
Her issue is that, since the French motorways were privatised eight years ago, they have been making a rather fine profit- €20 for every €100 taken according to her figures. Her plan to tax lorries on environmental grounds has fallen through (as we all know what happens when French lorry drivers get narked) so instead she is turning to the people making most money out of French roads. The problem is that there is now no Governmental money to pay for road maintenance and to finance sustainable transport projects. Someone somewhere clearly didn’t think this through when pocketing the motorway privatisation cash.
Ms Royal wants to hit motorway companies with a triple whammy- reducing motorway tolls by 10%, abolishing them at weekends and taking another 10% of the profit from tolls to “finance infrastructure investment funds”. She claims the hugely-profitable motorways, who have distributed a teeny €15bn of dividends to shareholders in the last eight years since they were privatised, have reneged on contractual commitments to reduce prices as they built the motorways, she said.
The motorway operators’ contracts allow them to pass tax increases on to road users, but presumably don’t require them to keep the roads in the tip top condition we Brits abroad expect- with this latest news causing them to threaten to abandon €3.6bn of planned works Prime Minister Manuel Valls got them to agree to last year.
So does this mean that the fundamental basis of private toll motorways is flawed? In the UK, we have a number of tolls in various places, largely bridges and tunnels, but the most well-known example of a toll motorway is the M6 Toll near Birmingham. The private/public partnership allowed the M6 Toll company to lease the land from the Government and build and run the motorway for 53 years, after which time the lease will revert to the Government.
The toll road’s latest quarterly figures showed an average of 45,473 vehicles travelling on the road per day, with the current cost of a car at £5.50 for the 27 mile stretch.
However, the M6 Toll was set up on the basis of attracting 74,000 vehicles per day, and while recent roadworks have increased traveller numbers, the new ‘active traffic’ system through the two busiest sections of the M6 (which correspond to the M6 Toll) is likely to ease congestion. The company has been making a loss for years- only because of huge loan repayments to it's parent company- but it still clearly isn't proving the cash cow its creators imagined. So are toll roads just a rubbish idea?
From the UK Government’s perspective, it’s been a win all round. They have had a new road built, some easing of traffic while they improve the M6, and they get the land (and the road) back in 2053. The original plan, however, was to extend the toll road up towards Manchester, but unsurprisingly, the M6 Toll company has been less than enthusiastic.
So is it the cost? When the toll road first opened the promotional cost per car was around £2, which drivers seemed to find acceptable, but is £5.50 too much? What would be the maximum amount you would pay to go on a toll road like this? Would it make a difference if it was 10% less (i.e. £5 per car) or free at the weekends as proposed by the French? Or do we just not do private motorways.
Interestingly, even the French think the free tolls at the weekend idea is a daft one, notwithstanding the fact that it would save them money. Twitter users have started using a new hashtag, #gratuitleweekend, with a wave of alternative suggestions ranging from free fruit and vegetables to combat obesity to free cigarettes or even cinema tickets, designer handbags and nightclub entry. Zut alors.