The barriers of some of the most iconic tolls in Spain, with more traffic and with more collection, will finally be lifted this Tuesday at midnight after half a century in operation. Most of the open kilometers are in Catalonia: the AP-7, in its section between Salou and La Jonquera, and the AP-2, from Zaragoza to El Vendrell, to which must be added the C-32, known as the Maresme motorway, and the C-33, between Barcelona and Granollers. After the end of the concessions on August 31, Catalonia will wake up with 550 kilometers of new free highways. A situation that drivers who regularly use these roads may like, but which leaves the debate over who should pay for road maintenance and how, all in the midst of the climate crisis era.
Although many administrations have debated what the new financing model for high-capacity roads should be, the truth is that the opening of these tolls has come long before any of the ideas in competition have been put into operation. Because there is not, there is not even a consensus on what the next step should be, much less a timetable to implement new financing formulas. For the moment, it will be the public coffers that will cover the costs that, once the work has been amortized, entail the maintenance, the management of the roads and all the refurbishment works that have to be carried out in the future.
The bill is obviously not as high as paying for the construction of a new road, but it is not exactly cheap either. It is estimated that each kilometer of motorway costs about 60,000 euros per year, an amount that can fluctuate depending on the characteristics but that yields a figure that would hardly be below 20 million euros. This annual investment could even multiply when urgent interventions are carried out, such as the new accesses that are already being planned on the so-called Maresme highway. In the case of Catalan connections, the price would be divided between the General State Budgets (AP-7 and AP-2) and those of the Generalitat (C-32 and C-33).
For the moment, it will be the taxpayer who assumes these costs, but in the future the bet of both administrations is to return to a pay-per-use model. This is the first dichotomy in the debate on highways: between those who consider that they should be free (or tend towards free once amortized) and those who believe that, beyond models, in general they should be paid for by whoever passes through them.
Both the central government and the Generalitat are in the second option: charging the user. But among them there are also nuances about which is the best formula. While Catalonia has been studying the so-called ‘vignette’ for some time, a method of payment by time similar to a flat rate, the Ministry of Transport considers that the most appropriate model for the whole of the country should be sought, which could be more similar to the current one method of payment for kilometers. This question was left open in the Recovery Plan presented by Moncloa, which only spoke of “a system of payment for use of the high-capacity road network that makes it possible to cover maintenance costs and integrate the negative externalities of road transport such as it happens in the rest of infrastructures “.
Payment? Vignette or tolls
“The first difference between these models is that the vignette is cheap, does not need large investments and introduces at once the vision that it must pay for the use of all high capacity roads”, explains Alvar Garola, professor of the Engineering department Civil and Environmental of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia. “On the other hand, the model of payment per kilometer requires a large investment, because in some way it has to be controlled and the current tolls are going to be dismantled. One idea is to control through the license plate, as is now the case in Roca del Vallès, but you need to install the infrastructure and start it up, something that is neither instantaneous nor cheap, “explains the expert.
Beyond the initial investment, both models also respond to different needs and objectives. The vignette, as a flat rate, only makes sense when paying for the use of most of the motorway and motorway network of a territory. Something that did happen in Catalonia (at least until this Tuesday) or in the Basque Country, but that is not frequent in other parts of Spain. According to data from the Ministry of Transport, of the 12,000 kilometers of high-capacity roads managed by the State, only about 2,000 are subject to payment by the user. The communities manage another 5,200, of which about 500 under tolls. This explains why it is so unpopular to introduce a mode that puts a price on all high-capacity roads.
However, whether drivers like it more or less, the central government is obliged by a European directive to apply a financing model for motorways before 2024. Europe does not impose exactly which, but it does mark some requirements such as that it contributes to making the travel of people and goods more efficient and sustainable, that it largely defrays the costs of construction and maintenance of the roads and, in general, that it contributes to reducing CO2.
Tolls, an instrument for making politics
However, the payment per kilometer has an important advantage over the flat rate, insofar as it allows the introduction of pricing. That is, price scales, discounts, offers, surcharges and all kinds of price changes to encourage or discourage the desired uses. The tolls, in short, allow the development of public policies from the highways.
“You can do whatever you want. You can encourage off-peak mobility. Or high vehicle occupancy. You can encourage one type of vehicle or another. Or you could even discriminate based on rent, although it would be quite complex and I doubt that anyone would. you want to do. But you could. The issue is that you can assess each vehicle directly and individually and that gives many options “, explains Nel·la Saborit, engineer specialist in infrastructure and mobility and member of the technical cabinet of the Strategic Plan Metropolitan of Barcelona (PEMB).
This option is something that already exists in some neighboring countries, such as Portugal, and that would have similarities with the congestion charges in London or Milan. In fact, the Generalitat had already been subsidizing hybrid and electric cars for years on some of the highways that have now become free. None of this can be done if the toll roads are not recovered, since not even the vignette would allow the introduction of this type of green or social incentives.
“Now, making policies with tolls implies more management, that is, more complexity and more investment,” introduces Saborit, “because you need an infrastructure to control it and that requires an outlay that can be significant, even if you pay it off later.” Garola agrees with that vision: “In the end the issue is what priorities you have. Environmental, tourist, social? In the end the toll is a political tool and, therefore, it matters who manages it because it will reflect their interests,” he says.
The importance of homogeneity
The professor of Economics at the University of Barcelona, Daniel Albalate, does not hesitate to describe as a “lost opportunity” that the fall in tolls that collect the most has not been taken advantage of to introduce a new payment model. “The essential thing is that when we use the toll roads we generate external costs over the others. Therefore, this must be assumed by whoever obtains the benefit, among other things because it is the way to rationalize use,” he explains. Those external costs to which Albalate refers range from the occupation of space to pollution, through the risk of accidents and, obviously, the contribution to climate change.
But these externalities are generated whether the road is amortized or not. For this reason, the majority of experts insist on the need that, once the toll road concession models have expired, the payment be generalized to all Spanish high-capacity roads. That means charging drivers who have been paying for half a century and already have a deep sense of injury as much as those who have never paid. “In Spain there are 19 provinces that have never had a single kilometer of toll”, highlights Albalate. Despite this, “there has been a very important change: for the first time it seems that they want to homogenize by means of payment and not by means of eliminating tolls by which it seems that Rajoy was betting,” says the professor of Economics.
Despite the fact that Catalonia had so far opted for the vignette, the priority now is to adopt a single model on all Spanish roads and, even, most experts propose that there be harmonization at the European level, at least of the large vehicles of goods. That is why the roof is on the roof of the Ministry, which will be the one who must bet on a single payment method for all Spanish roads. With the consequent friction that this can generate with drivers, carriers and companies in the sector.
“We are starting from an original sin, that the motorway model has not been extended in a homogeneous way and this has generated grievances,” adds Garola. Feelings of territorial offense that, in Catalonia, some mark as one of the important moments of the independence movement, with the “no return to pay” movement [no quiero pagar] It was popularized by skipping highway barriers at the beginning of the decade. In parallel, the fact that a good part of the Spanish is not used to paying makes the reluctance to the toll can be enormous. “The Government may have few incentives in some territories, but the cost of supporting the highways is increasing and has an impact on budgets,” recalls Saborit. “And more so now when the entire AP-7 and highways with more traffic enter the hole.”