Drivers being charged exorbitant toll for use of peripheral highway

Questions over whether and how much people should pay for the use of Athens’s Attiki Odos ring road have, in the past month, been raised by citizens, journalists and especially the municipalities that the highway runs through. Toll charges have sparked protests as users of the ring road, when the Gerakas-Metamorphosis section of the Attiki Odos was opened at the end of January, were suddenly asked to pay 60 cents more (bringing the overall charge to a total of 1.80 euros), regardless of the distance traveled. In any case, of all European countries, only Greece and Portugal charge for the use of ring roads. Northern countries do without toll posts altogether, while southern states such as France and Italy charge for the use of other highways, but not peripheral ones. There have been strong reactions to the tolls for reasons that are social and political as well as economic. But a flat charge is also unacceptable for reasons to do with transportation planning, says Giorgos Yannis, president of the Hellenic Institute of Transportation Engineers. «We construct a road to ease movement and make people’s lives easier and then we effectively forbid them to use it. A flat toll charge is against the mobility we want to achieve,» Yannis told Kathimerini. After the first protests by people and media outlets, Town Planning and Public Works Ministry (YPEHODE) officials and the Attiki Odos consortium’s representatives hinted that the flat charge was aimed at discouraging small, local journeys that would overload the road. «That’s an easy excuse, which doesn’t stand up to examination,» Yannis riposted. «If that was the issue, it could easily be solved by having a higher charge during rush hours.» But while having different charges according to the time of day is feasible, varying them according to distance is no longer a possibility. «They should have thought of it before,» Yannis said. «Charge differentials can be implemented either by constructing toll posts at exits, with accompanying lanes, or through an electronic system involving transmitters and receivers. The first is by now almost impossible, since there is very little room – the toll posts at the entrances were hard enough to build. In any case, they would mean queues when exiting as well as when driving onto the highway. Establishing an electronic system, on the other hand, requires time (at least three years) and money, and anyway can only be used for vehicles furnished with a transmitter.» The cost per kilometer, he added, should have been studied from the beginning. Moreover, given that the contract for the project sets the charge ceiling at 2.80 euros, a financial study should have been conducted to decide on intermediate tolls. Instead, Yannis said, they seem to be set in quite an arbitrary fashion. Initially, the consortium wanted the charge fixed at 2 euros, but compromised on 1.80 euros after pressure from YPEHODE. «The toll charge is regarded as vital to paying off constructors’ capital investment and the loans they took out. But since constructors have begun to earn money a full three years before completion of the work, the period of time during which they are entitled to exploit it should be redetermined. «The takings from the Attiki Odos toll posts should be published every month for reasons of transparency and so that people can inform themselves of which section of the road has been paid off.» However, Yannis made it clear he thought a toll charge essential. «We have to pay tolls, because without them, the Attiki Odos would not have been built. «In countries like Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, the inhabitants don’t know what toll charges mean, because toll posts don’t exist anywhere. There, however, the roads are built and maintained by the state. In southern Europe – Italy, France, Portugal – where, like here, the state requires the participation of private companies, toll posts are essential. «Besides,» he added, «charging for using the road infrastructure is gaining ground worldwide, because it enables better management of traffic fluctuations and ensures high standards of comfort and safety.» Since the State lacked the money, he continued, it was necessary for users to pay through toll charges. As a pricing measure, it was also fairer on inhabitants outside Athens, who are non-users, because they are not asked to shoulder the burden through taxation.» It all boils down to how private firms exploiting and managing the roads are monitored and supervised by the State, «whose responsibility and obligation it is to protect