THE ELECTRONIC toll collection project for Slovakia’s highways, with its price tag of over €850 million, has never lacked publicity. Political ethics watchdogs cried foul the first time when the contract to construct the nationwide satellite-based system went to a sole remaining bidder – the one which had put the most expensive offer on the table. The European Commission has also asked for more information as to why three bidders were eliminated from the final round of the mega-tender.
Now, additional concerns have emerged after the state’s procurer picked the one and only bidder in a tender to select a firm to oversee the process of actually collecting the tolls. The National Highway Company (NDS) selected a Czech company, Logica, in a competition where the tender documents said the NDS was looking for the most advantageous bid – defined as the lowest price. Since Logica, the company which oversees toll collection in the Czech Republic, was the only bidder it is impossible to determine whether its offer is most advantageous in terms of price.
Nevertheless, the highway authority signed a 13-year contract with the firm which will receive payments of €28.789 million, not including VAT, up until 2022. The NDS published the price it will pay Logica in the official procurement bulletin. Initial estimates of what the contract could be worth were around €32.5 million.
The conditions for participation in the tender required that a bidder must have had a minimum turnover of €26.55 million each year in the period from 2006 to 2008 and have liability insurance of at least €10 million, according to the SITA newswire.
According to the Sme daily, 20 companies originally requested and received the tender documents, but only Logica chose actually submit a bid. Local media speculated that the tender conditions were arranged in such a way that they discouraged companies from continuing further in the process, which was announced in July 2009.
Political ethics watchdog Transparency International Slovensko (TIS) expressed its concerns as well.
“Our research clearly shows that if only one bidder participates in a tender the lack of competition does not generate pressure on the offered price and thus save public funds,” Emília Sičáková Beblavá of TIS told The Slovak Spectator. “That is why it is necessary to take a look at why this competition had only one participant and, in my opinion, if the NDS cared about the best combination of price and quality it should have reevaluated the criteria and reannounced the tender.”
The NDS rejected any concerns raised about the tender, arguing that none of those 20 original companies have objected to the conditions. “The public procurer has not received a single request for correction to the announcements, tender documentation or other proceedings,” said the NDS, as quoted by Sme, with the NDS adding that the conditions could not be described as being impossible to meet.
However, on October 22, Sme reported, for example, that the NDS had requested bidders to submit references about the work each one had carried out in the period from 2005 to 2008. Even though the winner of a similar Austrian highway tender has operated since 2004, that company, OFPZ Arsena, decided not to continue in the bidding process in Slovakia, according to Sme.
In the tender for the construction of the toll system, the consortium of SanToll-Ibertax, now operating as SkyToll, won with a bid of €852.1 million, including VAT, even though it was the highest bidder. Slovakpass, one of the competing bidders, led by the Italian company Autostrade, proposed to charge only €630.9 million.
The bid from the Slovak-Swiss consortium, ToSy, was for €651.3 million and Kapsch, headed by the Austrian firm Kapsch TrafficCom from Vienna, bid €749.2 million. But those three firms with lower bids were excluded by the NDS for various reasons.
On October 13, the Bratislava Regional Court rejected lawsuits filed by Slovakpass in response to the decision of the Public Procurement Office to not act on the complaints made by Slovakpass concerning its exclusion from the tender. The court ruled that the procurement office had acted in accord with the country’s legislation.
The National Highway Company had excluded Slovakpass because it failed to meet the requirements for a backup diesel generator to supply power to the system, for failure to submit copies of certificates and attestations and, also, because of its unusually low price, SITA wrote.
The new system for electronically collecting highway tolls for certain vehicles using Slovakia’s highways and parallel first class roads is expected to start on January 1, 2010. Operators of vehicles heavier than 3.5 tonnes, buses and other vehicles holding more than nine people including the driver, will be charged for using them on a total of 2,032 kilometres of Slovak highways and first-class roads. The system is based on GPS – GSM satellite technology.
The system also includes six highway gates and 40 control gates on parallel first-class roads.
The Association of Road Transport Operators (ČESMAD), which has signed a contract with SkyToll, will operate eight contact centres in Slovakia’s regions and 13 distribution centres, of the more than 90 distribution centres in all, where truck and bus operators can acquire the required on-board units (OBUs) which will connect their vehicles with the satellite system.
ČESMAD warned transportation companies that it is crucial for all operators to register for the system promptly and not to leave it till the very last moment.
The on-board units to be used in the Slovak electronic toll collection system are expected to be fully compatible with the planned European Electronic Toll Service. However, full inter-operability of the e-toll systems across Europe will require agreements to be concluded among individual EU states, the SITA newswire wrote.