Carlos Calvo Ambel, policy analyst at Transport & Environment
The pilot plan of Spain’s Ministry of Transport would encourage trucks to use the tolled highways. However, subsidising tolling companies that own the privatised roads in order to give trucks cheaper toll tariffs is an expensive and inefficient way of achieving a laudable objective: safer and better maintained roads.
The reason trucks avoid tolled highways is, of course, that public roads are free. But while the truckers don’t pay, taxpayers do. The reality is that trucks cause virtually all the damage to the road surface. The repairs cost almost €2 billion and are frankly unsustainable under the current budgetary conditions. On top of that, truck exhaust emissions that make people sick cost the Spanish state €4 billion every year, and lorries cause a disproportionate number of fatal accidents.
There are better alternatives to subsidising truck tolls with precious public money. One would be to make the haulage sector pay for the damage they do to public roads through a km-based road toll. This would remove the main reason why hauliers use smaller roads, i.e. that they are free. Another option would be to ban trucks from a number of public roads, as in the original proposal, and force hauliers to use the tolled roads without a public subsidy.
We should stop swimming against the current. Four countries have already introduced km-based tolls for trucks. Germany has done it, and so have Poland, Austria and recently Belgium. Even Sweden is now contemplating a km-toll for lorries. The European Commission will be coming forward in 2016 with new legislation that would make lorry infrastructure charging mandatory. This proposal in Spain is not just ill conceived; it’s also out of touch with what’s happening in the rest of Europe.
The government is under intense pressure from the Spanish haulage sector despite the fact that this sector already receives many benefits. Apart from free access to a massive, publicly funded road network, hauliers pay some of the lowest fuel taxes for commercial diesel in the EU. In 2014 while ordinary citizens paid €1.29/litre of diesel, hauliers paid €0.98/litre – considering special discounts, the fact they don’t pay VAT, plus a tax rebate of almost 3 cents on average (which skims the EU legal minimum). The rebates equate to more than a €375 million subsidy to the haulage sector every year.
What’s more, road charging is not a bad thing for hauliers. In those countries that have introduced road charging for trucks, like Germany, the haulage sector is doing very well. It has become more efficient, there are fewer empty trucks driving around, the sector has generally become more professional and safety has improved. What’s more, a part of the revenue is used to maintain the roads, which ensures hauliers can continue making use of an excellent road infrastructure in the decades to come. That’s probably a much better idea than giving hauliers free access to a system that is underfunded and bound to crumble without additional financing.