Justin Hamilton reviews the 12th annual road user charging conference
Delegates from 22 different countries gathered over two days for the annual RUC conference, held for the first time in Amsterdam. Returning chairman Keith Mortimer led the opening day’s discussion, which included presentations from European public authorities, operators and technology providers.
Marije de Vreeze, ITS manager at Connekt, began proceedings with an examination of the status of ITS technology in the Netherlands. De Vreeze pointed out that the Netherlands is one of the most populated countries in Europe with growing road maintenance costs and shrinking budgets. “Growth is exceeding the road network capacity”, said de Vreeze. “When it is hard to build roads you have to optimise the network you have.” To achieve this, many countries are investing in intelligent transport solutions. The benefits can be significant, ranging from improved road safety to increased cost effectiveness and positive environmental effects. As a trading nation and leading exporter, increasing the cost effectiveness of public traffic management is crucial to the Netherlands, as it is for many other densely populated European countries.
De Vreeze explained how infrastructure and environment minister Melanie Schultz van Haegen-Maas Geesteranus, wants to put the Netherlands at the forefront of self-driving vehicles and automated driving technology through large scale testing and development. “I do not merely want to be ready for these developments, I see them as an opportunity to pit the Netherlands on the map globally as a country where these innovations can occur”, said van Haegen.
Kilometre charging in Finland
“Current taxation has very little to do with transport policy in Finland”, was the conclusion of Tuomo Suvanto, senior advisor at the ministry of transport and communications. As part of his morning address, Suvanto outlined the problems facing road transport in Finland, as well as an update on the political discussions surrounding kilometre based charging. Suvanto explained that there was a real need for a more effective transport policy, arguing that the existing structure did nothing to support transport policy tools.
With a target implementation date of 2025, what the Finnish proposal lacked in expediency it made up for in ambition. “In the case of passenger cars, the basic idea is to replace fixed taxes with a kilometre tax. The replacement of the car and vehicle tax with a kilometre tax based on time, place and type of vehicle would lend stronger support to transport policy objectives than the current system.”
The idea behind the proposed kilometre tax was based on two separate models. The first model applied a flat tax of approximately 3.3 cents per kilometre across the whole country. The second would have applied a variable rate of between €1 – €4 depending on the region and population density.
Suvanto conceded that a change in pricing could prove more expensive for heavy users of the roads and would be most beneficial to motorists who drive less than average. Impact assessments did show that a kilometre tax would achieve expected changes in behaviour. According to the government’s conducted studies some would drive less, choose another route, switch to public transport or buy a new car. “The consequences of behaviour changes are reflected in the reduced number of accidents and reduced level of emissions”, added Suvanto. The impact on road traffic volumes was also projected to be most acute in areas where public transport services are strong enough to provide a clear alternative. The operating costs of a kilometre based system were expected to be around six per cent of income, although Suvanto was confident this would be offset elsewhere. “Annual savings in reduced accident and emission costs to society would be equal to the cost of collecting the tax.” Having set up a working group to look into the issue it was concluded that a step by step approach was most suitable, with stages including trials, experimentation and monitoring.
Yet, as we have seen time and time again, change will always meet stiff resistance, especially from those who may lose out or feel an additional pinch in their pocket. Suvanto lamented that the resources to respond to the negative comments simply did not exist. “There has been a lot of talk on social media and we have no answer on how to tackle this. The resources to respond do not exist.” Privacy was also a reoccurring concern, with many potential advocates worried about over potential infringements. With the weight of these objections political support evaporated.
Suvanto remained upbeat, insisting that issues such as privacy and cost could be overcome and stakeholder groups could be persuaded. “Constant political support is vital. Never underestimate the power of the 5 per cent minority”.
Policy and progress
Belgium is a small country with a large transit of HGVs and large population of passenger cars. According to Bart Dewandeleer, vice president of Viapass, 61 per cent of HGV kilometres are from those in transit. Like the Netherlands, Belgium also has large logistics hubs in Antwerp, Zeebrugge and Ghent.
Dewandeleer noted that in the preceding 12 months the three Belgian regions had successfully agreed upon the creation of an interregional agency, managed the tender phase and appointed a DBFMO operator. Regional decrees have also been agreed, in principle, between the three governments. Satellic, a joint venture between T-Systems of Germany, who also form part of the Toll Collect consortium, and Strabag of Austria was chosen to as the SSP in late July 2014.
Echoes of the German scheme are never far from the conversation when discussing Belgium. When questioned, Dewandeleer was clear that while tariffs had not yet been set, the German rates were reasonable and could form a benchmark.
“Each truck with a MTM > 3,5 tonnes, either Belgian or foreign, will receive an OBU that will register the driven kilometres and the exact location by satellite technology, thereby determing exactly on which type of road the kilometres have been driven. Tariffs have not been fixed yet but will be in line with the principles of the EU legal framework.” OBUs will be distributed via the internet and mail order. In a first of its kind operation, OBUs will also be available through vending machines, situated at 130 service points in and around Belgium. While some delegates questioned the wisdom of using vending machines citing concerns over potential vandalism, Dewandeleer felt they represented a convenient and innovative method for distributing OBUs.
Mirroring the sentiment expressed in Finland, Dewandeleer argued that Viapass’ success was based on a clear step by step approach; a shared directive which defines both the approach and culture behind the project. “We have booked solid results and are on are on schedule for implementation in 2016. The Belgian regions have proved to be reliable political partners, both before and after the elections of May 2014. Mobility objectives can only be met if everyone is in.” Thus further underlining the importance of constant political support throughout the process.
In a clear and refreshing statement, undoubtedly buoyed by the relative success of the project Dewandeleer further stated that, “We believe in the future of variable road charging in Europe”.
Looking back at the proposed timeline in Finland, one has to be impressed by Belgium. Despite a fragmented system of governance and extreme volatility in France, the Interregional body in on target to deliver a fully fledged road user charging scheme within five years of conception.
Mandatory toll tag in Norway
Unlike Germany and Belgium, Norway does not have a large amount of transit traffic. In 2013 it was estimated that only seven per cent of miles were driven by foreign vehicles. 69 per cent of these had purchased either an Autopass or EasyGo toll tag, however the remaining 31 per cent had made no contribution at all.
Perhaps learning lessons from its neighbour, policymakers decided against a kilometre based charge and opted instead for an ordinary vignette based system, which drivers would be required to display prominently in their front windscreen. “We started exploring the concept in 2011”, advised Toril Lie, senior advisor at the Norwegian Public Road Administration. By May 2014 hearings were held and a provision was adopted by the Norwegian parliament on 10th October, with a scheduled start date of 1st January 2015. The challenge therefore, was not technological or even political, rather one of time. “We had 12 weeks to get the word out there”, explained Beate Viktoria Ørbeck, communication officer at the Norwegian Public Road Administration.
This was achieved by targeting 1200 companies, organisations and institutions, 500 media outlets and 51,000 personalised letters. Information leaflets were also produced and distributed in 15 different languages. “This resulted in 26,605 new contracts signed in December and January. A rate of 13,300 each month, compared to an average of 1000 in previous months”, revealed Ørbeck. Tags were made available at the border as well as at customs points and main ferry terminals. “This was an opportunity to improve the tolling system”, argued Lie. “Low cost and short time frame can work.”
Checking up on toll collectors
“National road authorities face several challenges when introducing a new electronic tolling scheme”, advised Michal Bodnar, senior business consultant at CGI. These can include a lack of technical and operational knowledge, complex political discussions, a need to remain transparent, pressure from deadlines, public acceptance and keeping pace with suppliers. As a result of these challenges, Bodnar argued that the scope for advisory services for road authorities fell into three phases, “The conceptual phase, the implementation phase and the operational phase.” Each of these stages calls for a different set of services ranging from a review of the strategy and business case at the conceptual phase to revenue assurance and health checks once in operation.
“When selecting advisors, don’t rely solely on academics. Hire technical personnel with professional experience operating telematics systems. Select one advisor for the entire project lifecycle, this will avoid handovers and responsibility gaps”, said Bodnar. Indeed this model has proven to be successful elsewhere, notably in Belgium, which also opted for an “all in” advisory contract.
Bodnar further stresses the importance of key performance indicators (KPIs) within a tolling project covering areas such as toll collection efficiency, web availability and enforcement.
“Apart from roadside measurements a number of other quality checks are also conducted. These include a set of proven auditing methods and tools for control of the following domains; call centres, distribution points, OBU stock, websites and marketing campaigns.”
An auditor’s role can vary considerably according to the needs and complexity of the project. Ultimately however, there are common reasons for working with an auditor; maintaining a balance between revenue and cost of service, ensuring contractual compliance and protecting the reputation of the authority. Road pricing schemes are often subject to intense scrutiny, especially in cases where public opposition is rife. Engaging with external specialists to enable faster and more secure return on investment may be one way in which public opposition can be contained.
Organisations at RUC 2015 included:
Blue Cedar Services Limited
Central Fine Collection Agency, Netherlands
CGI IT Czech Republic
DKV Euro Service
Ernst & Young Baltic
European GNSS Agency
General Directorate for National Roads and Highways, Poland
German Aerospace Center
Leibniz Centre for Law
Lithuanian Road Administration
LogPay Transport Services
Ministry of Environment
Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, Netherlands
Ministry of Transport and Communications, Finland
National Roads Authority, Ireland
National Toll Payment Services, Hungary
Norwegian Ministry of Transport and Communications
Norwegian Public Road Administration
PTOLEMUS Consulting Group
Road Infrastructure Agency, Bulgaria
Robert Bosch Car Multimedia
Shell Deutschland Oil
Sund & Bælt
The World Bank
Union Tank Eckstein
University of Southampton
Article taken from the April 2015 issue of RUC Magazine