Europe: Movement toward tolling

March 11, 1996

Europe: Movement toward tolling

Originally published in issue 1 of Tollroads Newsletter, which came out in Mar 1996.


Subjects:tolling free roads


Although the topography is flat and road construction easy, to travel the 60 miles from Brussels (2m pop.) to the major French industrial and inland port city of Lille (pop. 1m) the fastest way is to take the A7/E-19 expressway 35 miles due south to Mons on the route to Paris, and then to head some 65 miles north-westish on the A16/E42. As the rather American looking green signs on the Belgian highways change to the distinctive white on dark blue of the French road system you slow from the normal 85 or 90 m/hr to about 30 m/hr to pass through the abandoned, but not removed, border post plaza. The brown metal fascia on the canopy of the booths is half fallen off and weeds grow prolifically where decorative planters once were filled with tulips, and some of the booths are vandalized. With the gradual integration of Europe, such plazas are not needed because immigration and customs controls have been abandoned.

A Belgian official told me on a recent visit: “We don’t demolish it because it comes in handy when the police have to stop the traffic to check vehicles for terrorists or other criminals. Besides it might make a toll plaza?”

The Belgians highways are all free at present, but consideration is being given to tolling some or all of the country’s expressways, probably as part of a more general European Union policy of imposing user fees on the roads. France’s extensive system of ‘autoroutes’ is almost entirely tolled.

Belgium is one of the most pro-European union of countries, very internationally oriented in its commerce and thinking generally. But like most European countries its major highways have been developed primarily for intra-national transportation, with international links underdeveloped. In fact a direct Brussels-Lille expressway is under construction (A8), eventually allowing faster travel between Brussels and London via the Channel Tunnel. There’s a major new French expressway the A18/E40 recently completed between the Chunnel portal near Calais 30 miles to the Belgian border near the coastal town of Verne. Running parallel with the coast about 5 miles inland it passes by the eastern outskirts of Dunkerque, providing a major upgrade to the London-Central Europe route via the channel tunnel. The present configuration of Belgian expressways was built to service this large volume of traffic via the Channel ferries which leave from Ostende. The Belgians still have to complete their 5 mile link in the new coastal expressway from the border to Verne.

Serious bottlenecks

There are serious bottlenecks for traffic between Belgium and the Ruhr Valley of Germany. One missing link, once built — a 15 mile gap between the A2/E340 at Geleen, Belgium and the German A46 at Huckelhoven — will provide a direct expressway between central Belgium and the southern Ruhr Valley. And dotted in on EU maps is a 140 mile new east-west highway linking the major Belgian port city of Antwerp with the German A52 autobahn east of Dusseldorf. There is an existing expressway the E34 12 to 20 miles north of this route, between Duisburg and Antwerp. The Europeans are developing a dense expressway grid!

And whereas the U.S. interstate system is said to be complete, the Europeans have in mind a whole series of new links to improve international transportation, which in many ways is the equivalent of U.S. interstate links. Intermodalism is as much a buzzword in Europe as in the U.S. and new rail lines are given heavy emphasis, together with further development of canals, but huge highway construction is planned in addition between now and 2020.

Despite a great deal of elite sentiment and political pressure in favor of rail and canal transportation and major public expenditures on these modes, Europe is moving steadily toward predominant dependence on highways, as the table below shows.

In spite of huge road fuel taxes, magnificent fast trains and the world’s most extensive networks of light rail and subways, rail’s passenger mode share has falled from 10% in 1970 to 6.6% in 1990, just about matched by an increase in air travel, leaving road’s share rock steady at 88%. Says the EC Commission despondently: “The private car and lorry (truck) have thus emerged as the dominant means of transport (ation) causing congestion in main road corridors and urban centers.” (p21) This is because of the “increasingly finer penetration and availability of road haulage” and the “flexibility, speed, reliability, frequency and price” of road based transport (ation.) The paper argues that the most efficient way to limit further anti-social expansion of road demand is pricing of roads, with charging by electronic tolls so that peak hour premiums can be levied, and other means used to internalize external costs.

Roads’ modal share Freight Passengers

% of billion ton-km % billion passenger-km

1970 51 88

1990 70 88

Source: “The Future of the Common Transport Policy,” Bulletin of the European Communities, Supplement 3/93, European Communities Commission, Brussels, p 68,9.

“Reduce license fees, impose tolls”

The policy paper argues that standing license fees should be drastically reduced and per kilometer charges for road use introduced — tolling. France, Spain and Italy have always had most of their expressways tolled, and Greece and the east European countries are building their expressways mostly as toll roads in order to finance them with bond issues or investor finance. The British government has decided to impose tolls on its whole motorway (expressway) system and is trying out several different electronic toll systems. The Germans have a license system for use of the autobahns. It seems quite likely that they and the Benelux and Scandinavians will eventually fall in line with the EC’s advocacy of electronic tolling.•

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