For whom the tolls bell: new transport minister will focus on problematic roads use contract

Photo: Barbora Kmentová

A decision is looming on the selection of an operator for a controversial truck toll system which has already come under heavy fire for excessive costs and disappointing returns to the state coffers. The decision will be under the spotlight as the next transport minister tries to grapple with an apparently dysfunctional roads and highways directorate.

Dan Ťok,  photo: CTK
The next Minister of Transport faces a tough job getting to grips with the Czech motorway tolls system.

The current 10 year contract was handed out to Austrian operator Kapsch and runs until the end of 2016. While that might still look a long way away, proposed incoming minister Dan Ťok has already indicated that preparations to choose the next contractor will be one of his most pressing tasks.

One of the reasons for such priority is that his predecessor, ANO party’s Antonín Prachař, had already hit delays in his moves to prepare for the new selection procedure. Original plans to select a consultant to advise on the choice were supposed to be have been completed by the end of September but no winner was eventually declared by that deadline and the timetable now appears unclear.

The Czech tolls saga to date is an unhappy but, perhaps, familiar one, and unfortunately involves tens of billions of crowns. There have been persistent reports that the original tender in 2005 was tailored in such a way that to rule out the widest possible competition between the companies that would provide state agency the Road and Motorway Directorate with the infrastructure to register, track, and charge the lorries using roads according to the kilometers covered. Basically, the tender did not appear to be technology neutral and appeared to favor Kapsch’s microwave-based systems offer and exclude those based on satellite technology.

A probe by the national accounts watchdog, the Supreme Audit Office (NKŮ) in 2012 concluded that the system finally chosen was much more expensive to install and operate than a similar type of toll-based technology used in Austria and an alternative satellite-based system in Germany.

Another report by the accounts watchdog after the toll system’s first five years of operation found that a disproportionate near 50 percent of the toll earnings, totaling 31.3 billion crowns, had been swallowed up in the operator, Kapsch’s, construction and operation costs. The proportion of earnings taken by the operator over the whole contract period is expected to come down to around 20%.

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
Hikes in the tolls were pushed through in 2011 and 2012, increasing charges by 25%, but these resulted in a drop in earnings rather than the opposite. The snag was that cheaper charges were offered to less polluting trucks, and with the hikes in charges many more operators switched to more efficient and cleaner vehicles. It was good for the environment but no so good for filling the coffers for the directorate’s construction of new highways and repairs to the existing aged infrastructure.

And there have been other problems with the tolls operation as well. The directorate signed a contract with a company to collect some of unpaid tolls owed by haulage companies and cover the associated legal costs. Payments to the company eventually mounted up to around 57 million crowns but the recouped charges only amounted to 18.3 million. That meant that for around every three crowns spent just one was recovered.

Another complication for the award of a new toll contract is European Commission moves to push a Europe-wide satellite system. The basic aim is so that truckers crossing many borders will not have a series of set top boxes installed on board. Overall, the roll out of the Czech toll system looks like just one chapter in a bigger story of malaise and dysfunction at the roads directorate, one that looks like a make or break dossier for the next minister in the transport hot seat.