SLOVAKIA launched its electronic highway toll collection system for vehicles over 3.5 tonnes more than a year ago. While the impacts of the new system on truckers and road cargo transport companies have not been fully assessed, it is clear that politics were intermingled with its launch, that the system was constructed in a short period, and that its debut during the deep economic downturn have been factors in its ongoing criticism. Some problematic issues will likely remain unresolved until more information from the past year’s operation points to specific ways to improve the system. And a transportation expert looking at the e-toll system from a broader point of view says the opportunity to use it as a regulatory tool has not yet been fully tapped.
“Slovakia has a functioning electronic toll collection system but at the same time I am saying that it is not perfect,” Ľubomír Palčák, the director of the Transport Research Institute (VÚD) based in Žilina, told The Slovak Spectator. He said that the political nature of the decision to introduce the system was problematic, and that its launch within one year could have meant that not all aspects were completed properly from the point of view of either the technologies employed or of the overall system concept. For that reason, he said, some changes are warranted.
The current leadership of the Ministry of Transport, Construction and Regional Development has tuned its ear towards complaints and demands made by truckers who have been very critical of the system from its very beginning. The ministry has adopted a reduction in some fines related to e-toll violations and has promised to make other changes so that it becomes simpler and more effective.
“The previous cabinet approached the electronic toll system in a non-conceptual way that resulted in lower revenue from e-tolls and increased costs for operation of the system,” Transport Ministry spokesperson Martin Krajčovič told The Slovak Spectator. “For the time being it is the task of the ministry to, in particular, reduce costs linked to toll collection and operation of the e-toll system so that as large as possible share of revenue goes into construction and maintenance of roads.”
Krajčovič stated that the Transport Ministry would reveal specific steps in the coming weeks.
“The ministry is interested in making the toll system more effective and optimising its operation,” Krajčovič said. “This is also why it launched a commission to review the effectiveness of the toll system that is made up of representatives of the Transport Ministry, truckers (ČESMAD and UNAS), the National Highway Company (NDS), the toll police and SkyToll, which operates the e-toll system in Slovakia. It was a suggestion from this commission, for example, to reduce fines for toll offences.”
Truck drivers on toll roads who do not have an onboard unit (OBU), used to measure a vehicles’ road use via satellite, or those who drive on toll roads without paying the applicable fee are fined €1,655 if they pay on the spot or €2,655 if they pay later.
Many truckers have complained that these fines can cause bankruptcy. Slovakia’s cabinet adopted a reduction in the fines of about 60 percent in March that will take effect on August 1, Krajčovič said. The ministry is also preparing to commission an independent audit of the toll system.
“The ministry is also preparing other steps to make operation of the system, which was poorly set up by the previous cabinet of Robert Fico, more effective and optimal,” Krajčovič added.
The e-toll system meant an increase in truckers’ costs because rather than buying a highway sticker which had a flat payment for highway usage regardless of the kilometres driven, they now must pay tolls based on the number of kilometres covered on highways, dual carriageways and first-category roads.
Currently, about 1,900 kilometres of roads in Slovakia are tolled and the amount ranges from €0.020 per kilometre to €0.209 per kilometre depending on the weight of the vehicle, its emissions category and other factors, according to the National Highway Company.
The opinions of many truckers to the new system has been extremely negative and they based their criticisms on what they called a poorly prepared and overpriced system as well as a failure by the government to otherwise assist carriers which had already been severely hurt by the economic downturn.
“After the most difficult crisis year of 2009, 2010 started in the spirit of an overpriced, non-functional, badly-prepared and unfair toll system,” Rudolf Páleš, the vice-president of the Union of Motor Carriers of Slovakia (UNAS), an organisation launched by dissatisfied truckers at the beginning of 2010, told The Slovak Spectator. “While other countries were looking for ways to help companies survive the crisis, the Slovak cabinet started to collect tolls which brought chaos at border crossings and at contact points.”
When looking back, Pavol Jančovič, the president of the Association of Road Transport Operators of the Slovak Republic (ČESMAD), took an even longer view into history.
“In 2008 we experienced the pressure of high diesel prices in road transport, which was at least partly compensated by the still-growing economy,” Jančovič told The Slovak Spectator. “The following year, 2009, was particularly disastrous for road cargo transport because even though diesel prices decreased, the demand for our services steeply decreased too. This situation continued until the end of 2010 and it was also significantly influenced by the increase in our costs after the launch of e-tolls in Slovakia.”
Páleš said truckers have managed to win some concessions from the government but that these have not solved the basic problems of the system which he said are overpriced tolls and the scope of the roads tolled. He stated that many trucking firms already suffering from low demand due to the crisis were restrained from including the increased toll costs into their prices and were forced from the market.
“A [typical] Slovak carrier went down to the bottom of its reserves during the crisis,” Páleš said.
Jančovič of ČESMAD said hundreds of transport companies have left the market and thousand of trucks are gone. He blamed not only the e-toll system but also the economic decline.
UNAS also maintains that the e-toll system has not been achieving any regulatory function and Páleš said foreign carriers are particularly avoiding payment of tolls. He added that Slovakia, contrary to Austria or Germany, has not adopted any compensatory actions such as a reduction of vehicle taxes for truckers.
Truckers continue to seek ways to iron out wrinkles in the system and Páleš said the arrival of Iveta Radičová's cabinet has brought some action in addressing their demands.
E-toll as a regulatory tool
Palčák of the Transport Research Institute thinks the e-toll system should be used as a regulatory instrument but said that its opportunities have not yet been fully tapped. He believes the e-toll system can harmonise conditions for operation of railway and road cargo transport, at least partly, saying that in railway transport, as opposed to road transport, all costs are the responsibility of the operator and that charges highway use does not fully reflect actual costs.
He also suggested that the scope of tolled roads should be reviewed, i.e. whether certain roads should be excluded from the toll system while other roads are included. He added that in other countries that launched similar systems, drivers also began avoiding tolled roads which then brought heavier traffic and more damage to second- and third-category roads.
Palčák added that he does not think the current toll rates motivate truckers to buy vehicles with less impact on the environment. He also noted that the e-toll system could be tuned to regulate the amount of traffic on roads during peak hours or to lessen the amount of traffic on heavily-used roads.
“All these are things which are necessary in the future so that the system is fairer and simpler,” said Palčák. “Moreover, interoperability of the e-toll system is a great challenge as well so that a carrier transporting cargo across Europe will have only one contract, one onboard unit and get only one invoice. This is the future.”
Toll statistics for 2010
The e-toll revenues of the National Highway Company last year were 42.4 percent lower than projected: they amounted to only €36.2 million instead of the forecast €62.8 million.
Costs for operation of the toll system rose by €14.5 million compared to the plan, to €105.17 million. Tolls collected were 7.9 percent, or €12.08 million, lower than projected and totalled €141.42 million.
4. Apr 2011 at 0:00 | Jana Liptáková