Tolls return to main roads

MARCH not only has brought back electronic toll charges on Slovakia’s selected first category roads but has also apparently melted the determination of some highway truckers to continue protesting against what they call a poorly-tuned system to collect those tolls.

MARCH not only has brought back electronic toll charges on Slovakia’s selected first category roads but has also apparently melted the determination of some highway truckers to continue protesting against what they call a poorly-tuned system to collect those tolls.

The Transportation Ministry had said that the electronic toll system, with a price tag of over €850 million, was fully functional from its very inception on January 1 while the Union of Slovak Road Transporters (UNAS), which only a few months ahead of national elections mounted one of the strongest demonstrations of public opposition to the policies of the current government, says its members are continuing to suffer from the system’s shortcomings.

Another organisation representing trucking firms, Slovakia’s Association of Road Transport Operators (Česmad), has said that any reasons for discontent by truckers have disappeared.

After the rocky launch of the highway toll collection system at the beginning of the year, which resulted in massive protests, the Transport Ministry suspended collection of tolls on 1st category roads on January 14. But on March 1 collection of the tolls resumed on those roads.

Transport Minister Ľubomír Vážny said that even though the highway toll system was fully functional when it was launched, the ministry was sensitive to the truckers’ concerns and decided to suspend the toll collection until all technical details were fully tuned. The state is now collecting tolls on 1,442 kilometres of the total length of 3,275 kilometres of 1st category roads, the ministry said.

“Charging tolls on 1st category roads is unavoidable in this defined length not only for being able to secure finances for the construction and repair of road infrastructure but also to prevent traffic from being dispatched to roads that are not suited for higher traffic,” Vážny said.

Under the new e-toll system, operators of vehicles heavier than 3.5 tonnes, buses and other vehicles holding more than nine people including the driver are now charged by the kilometre for driving on a total of 2,032 kilometres of Slovak highways and first-class roads.

As of February, the rules for calculation of the amount of the toll were also changed on the 1st category roads. Drivers now pay for the section only if they drive its full length. If, for example, a driver makes a turnoff in the middle of the tolled section, there will be no charge for the use of the road and thus the drivers will pay for a smaller number of kilometres than they actually drive, the ministry said.

The protesting truckers gathered around UNAS ceased blocking roads in several cities on January 12 after the government acceded to most of their demands: a cut in the excise tax on diesel fuel; toll charges to be lifted from 1st category roads until the sections were fairly divided; a reduction in fines for incorrectly installed onboard units; and signs clearly marking the tolled sections of 1st category roads to be erected by the end of June 2010.

The excise tax on diesel fuel was decreased from €0.481 per litre to €0.391 per litre at the end of January which pushed down diesel prices at petrol stations to about €1.01 per litre.

The transporters also demanded that vehicles pay tolls only for the kilometres they actually drive on the toll road and not for whole sections.

On February 1 the number of tolled road sections increased from the original 826 sections to 1000 and 76 tolled road sections were revised – with many of them being divided into smaller sections. By April 1 there will be 1700 charged sections in Slovakia, the ministry announced.

Jaroslav Polaček of UNAS still insists that the system still has faults.

“We still claim that the toll system had been insufficiently prepared and has shortcomings,” Polaček told The Slovak Spectator, while being rather tight-lipped when asked to specifically name those faults.

Polaček said that UNAS at the moment is monitoring all the problems reported by its members and that it has strong evidence on the shortcomings of the system that it will present to international organisations at some point in the future.

“As soon as we publish any shortcoming, the ministry starts denying it – instead of objectively admitting the fault and solving it with SkyToll [the system operator],” Polaček said, adding that at that point SkyToll begins fixing the mistake.

While Česmad has said that it is not happy with the existence of the toll collection system, the organisation suggested that the reasons that led to the suspension of the tolls on the 1st category roads no longer exist.

Pavol Jančovič, a vice president of Česmad said that certain technical imperfections such as the period of validity of the service code in the event of non-functional onboard units is not such a serious problem that it could serve as a reason for trucking companies to insist on extending the suspension of tolls on 1st category roads, the SITA newswire wrote.

Polaček, however, said that Česmad had its reasons to talk positively about the toll collection system, suggesting that this association has had a share of the toll business as it is one of the organisations authorised to install onboard units.

Polaček specified that Česmad had signed a contract with SkyToll to operate contact centres in Slovakia’s eight regions as well as 13 distribution centres and alleged that it is supporting the toll system because the association can charge €112, not including VAT, for installation of onboard units.

“It is thus logical that Česmad, the company which has been giving the impression that it represents all the transporters, is supportive of the system,” Polaček stated.

The suspension of toll collection on selected 1st category roads produced a daily shortfall in highway fees ranging from €15,000 to €200,000 and the total shortfall for those 46 days has been estimated at between €6.9 and €9.2 million, wrote newswire SITA.

The mega-project first received extensive negative publicity when the contract to construct the nationwide satellite-based system was awarded to the sole remaining bidder in the tender, SkyToll, which was the successor company to a consortium that had submitted the most expensive bid. The European Commission subsequently asked for more information as to why three bidders had been eliminated from the final round of the high-value tender.

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