French highway tolls judged too expensive

Every year, more than 2.6 million Belgians will make use of their cars to go vacationing in France. And every one of them will stop at a tollbooth, dig around in their wallets and pay to access French highways. And, if a report by the French Court of Auditors is to be believed, they are paying too high a price for the privilege. It condemns the “tariff increases that are higher than inflation.” In 2012, prices rose by 2.12 %, while inflation stood at 1.8 %.

 

The French highway toll system was denationalized in 2006. Since then, the state has been forced to negotiate rates with private companies. According to the Court of Auditors, “the power struggle appears to favor companies operating the highways more than the public authorities.”

 

The tolls’ main purpose is to help build and maintain the roads. The companies involved justify the increases by pointing to additional investments in modernization and upkeep of the road network, but that should not necessarily entail an excessive price rise. The state can’t approve extraordinary increases just to finance the construction of a new stretch of road, says the French daily Le Monde.

 

Touring makes an attempt to defend the French companies being criticized. “You have to take the price into account but also –and more importantly – the service you’re paying for. The quality of French highways has definitely improved. Rest areas are more modern and cleaner, as are the roads themselves. It makes sense that the companies have invested a lot,” says a representative of the road assistance service. Touring does admit, however, that the pricing (there are apparently 40,000 different rates) is too complex.

 

Also under criticism in France is the practice of “proliferation”, where highways multiply the payable stretches of road, and consequently the price of a complete journey rises faster than shorter ones. Sometimes, a driver can even save money by exiting and then coming right back on to the same highway.

 

Lack of global standardization

For passing tourists looking for a simple approach, Touring provides a “liber-t Balade” badge, which is valid all across France and offers drivers certain advantages, such as giving them access to automatic reserved lanes, allowing them to defer payment and only asking them to pay during the months that they use the tolls.

 

Despite this, the driver-friendly organization has called for a better standardization across Europe. “The International Automobile Federation has been lobbying the European Commission to come up with a directive that will serve as a guide for Member States in terms of paying for highway use. It’s important to make the system easier to understand for the many tourists that take their car abroad.”

 

According to WES, the Flemish economic consultancy firm, 8,700,000 Belgians went on vacation with their car between April 2012 and March 2013. And each time, they have to adapt to a different toll system in the destination country.

 

ANN-CHARLOTTE BERSIPONT

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