INFRASTRUCTURE

Spain plans to introduce tolls on all state and regional highways

The executive has told Brussels that the system will be in place on high-capacity motorways by 2024, affecting both passenger cars and trucks, and may later be rolled out to national roads

Traffic on the A-3 motorway in Spain.
Traffic on the A-3 motorway in Spain.

The Spanish government is planning to introduce “a payment mechanism” on the country’s high-capacity roads beginning in 2024, according to the national recovery plan that Spain has sent to the European Commission in Brussels.

Drivers would pay to use the network of autopistas (highways that charge a toll, although some have partially been made toll-free in recent years) and autovías (high-speed motorways that are free of charge). The plan furthermore opens the door to charging a fee on other national and regional roads. So far, the Spanish government had been moving in the opposite direction, making some sections of the AP-7, AP-4 and AP-1 highways toll-free after concessions expired.

According to the plan, which seeks to adapt to the EU’s principle of “polluters pay,” tolls would first be charged on the 12,000 kilometers of state-run high-capacity roads, which include autopistas and autovías, and the model would later be scaled up to the 14,000 kilometers of national single-lane roads that are part of the state’s infrastructure. The government would also open negotiations with regional authorities to introduce the system in high-capacity roads controlled by the latter, according to the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan sent to Brussels by the government of Pedro Sánchez, of the Socialist Party (PSOE).

In a scenario of €0.04/km, motorists traveling from Madrid would pay €9 to go to Burgos, €12 to Zaragoza, €14 to Valencia, €15 to Córdoba, €16 to Badajoz and €22 to A Coruña

Sources at the Transportation Ministry said that the project only targets high-capacity roads, not local ones. They added that Spain’s proposal is part of a wider plan to converge with the rest of Europe, where the largest economies have extended tolls to many of their motorways.

The same sources said that the plan will not be rolled out for now due to the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. They also insisted that the measures will only be implemented with political consensus and hand in hand with the transportation sector.

Despite recent statements by members of the executive, the plan appears to target all road users, including passenger cars and trucks, and regardless of nationality. The plan suggests offering discounts to “financially underprivileged groups or regular road users on certain road sections.” As for transportation professionals, the government has pledged to seek payment formulas that would place the financial burden on the freight contractor, not the truck driver.

Aware that this will be a very unpopular measure, the government is planning an awareness campaign aimed at the transportation sector and the general population.

The executive argues that Spain has the most extensive high-capacity road network in Europe, and that growing maintenance costs cannot be covered directly by the national budget. “This is generating a cumulative maintenance deficit, leading to a loss of value and a deterioration of quality of service, which has consequences for road safety,” reads the plan. “The introduction of a pay-per-use system would guarantee maintenance of the road network, and generate incentives for a more efficient use of this mode of transportation, which in turn would lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Pere Navarro, the head of Spain’s traffic authority DGT, on Wednesday told the Senate that there would be exceptions to the payment rule. “When you introduce a toll of any kind, normally you exclude a few cases such as daily travel for work purposes.” Asked by Popular Party (PP) senator José Julián Gregorio whether senior citizens going to the doctor would also have to pay, Navarro replied: “It could perfectly be added that when grandma goes to the doctor, she does not have to pay either.”

The PP senator noted that “in many Spanish villages, the only way out of town is the autovía.” He asked the government to reconsider a measure that, he said, will make a lot of people take less safe roads in order to save money.

Tolls are expected to end in August on the Barcelona-La Junquera section of the AP-7
Tolls are expected to end in August on the Barcelona-La Junquera section of the AP-7

The executive said that the fees will be “affordable, but enough to guarantee financing.” The exact amounts have not been specified, although industry associations have offered some ballpark figures. The infrastructure maintenance association Acex said that a fee of €0.03 to €0.05 per kilometer on average would be enough to end the €8 billion deficit the government has racked up on road maintenance. And the construction company industry association Seopan, which supports the idea of a fee, has suggested €0.03 per kilometer for light vehicles, and €0.14 for heavy vehicles.

In a hypothetical scenario of €0.04 per kilometer, motorists traveling from Madrid would pay €9 to drive to Burgos, €12 to Zaragoza, around €14 to Valencia, €15 to Córdoba, €16 to Badajoz and €22 to A Coruña.

Free of charge in Germany

Unlike other proposals sent to Brussels, the road-fee system is more that a document: it is a legislative bill that is already at the draft stage and affects several ministries. A draft is expected to reach the Cabinet for first reading in the first half of this year, and could be approved in the second half. If so, the law could go into effect in 2024.

Following the financial crisis of 2008, neighboring Portugal introduced tolls in its entire high-capacity road network, for both light and heavy vehicles. In France and Italy, tolls are the norm on the highways, whereas in Germany they are free of charge. But no European country charges a fee on single-lane roads.

Until now, the Sánchez administration had been moving in the opposite direction: it did not renew several expiring concession contracts, ending toll collection on the Burgos-Armiñón section of the AP-1 highway in December 2018, the Tarragona-Alicante section of the AP-7 in January 2020, and the Seville-Cádiz section of the AP-4 on the same date. Tolls are also expected to end in late August on the Barcelona-La Junquera section of the AP-7, and on the Zaragoza-Mediterráneo section of the AP-2. This represents over 1,000 kilometers of newly freed up roads. The state has also bailed out eight other turnpikes – including Madrid’s radial roads – that went under in recent years.

English version by Susana Urra.

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