Thousands queue at A22 Guadiana border to pay tolls

It is the same every year – and particularly bad at Easter. Huge lines of frustrated drivers trying to pre-pay for the Algarve’s “illegal” motorway via the government’s so-called ‘Easy Toll’ system. But instead of having the guts to say “Okay, we messed up”, Estradas de Portugal goes on with its mantra that “the system works. In fact it is working better this year than it did last”. Just one phone call to a car hire company showed us that it is all “complete nonsense” – smoke and mirrors to deflect attention from tolls that were deemed illegal by the European Commission years ago, but which the government insists on implementing – to the clear detriment of local people and commerce.

This year’s queues of surprisingly patient drivers entering Portugal along the Guadiana International Bridge were testimony to the fact that the Easy Toll payment system is anything but easy.

“Thousands held up at toll stops to spend Easter in the Algarve” is how national news agency Lusa presented the story.

But as an agency whose majority share-holding is owned by the State, Lusa chooses its words carefully.

“Frustrations” caused by the hold-ups in almost 30º heat alongside the A22 (Via do Infante) electronic payment terminals were “overcome by the prospect of some days of rest in the Algarve”, said Lusa’s report.

Absolutely no reference was made to the hundreds of cars that breezed airily past the queues – having no intention whatsoever of “paying their way” as they made merry on holiday.

“Almost every holidaymaker who uses the motorway does so without paying,” a spokesman for rental company Luz Car Hire told the Resident.

“This has always been a horrible system that doesn’t work. We have received many letters to supply the names and addresses of clients that have not paid and, as far as we know, not one has resulted in a fine being sent to those people’s addresses.

“I have no idea what they will do if they receive their fines. I doubt they ever will. It is all spin, and, as I said before, a system that does not work.”

It is all illegal, too – as the European Commission ruled shortly after the austerity-focused coalition government introduced tolls on what used to be known as ‘non-paying SCUT highways’.

But in typical Emperor’s new clothes-style, the Portuguese authorities have refused to respond to the EC’s ruling – despite its recent reiteration of threats to take the whole issue to the European Court of Justice.

Instead, every year, Estradas de Portugal sends out press releases talking about the “increase in adhesion” to its Easy Toll payment system.

Last year, the number of people paying up in the Algarve was understood to have doubled. This year “adhesion” is reported to be up by another 19% nationwide, 32% in the Algarve.

The same press release continued on with its numbers and percentages, using data finally from 2013 to declare the Algarve had registered 126% more drivers paying via the Easy Toll system this year.

Just last Thursday, “there were almost as many adhesions (4,554) as there had been during the whole four-day Easter period of 2013”, the eulogy continued, finally coming to the self-congratulatory crescendo of: “The numbers given here show clearly of the preponderance of Easy Toll as the preferred payment solution by drivers of foreign vehicles that enter Portugal and whose large majority consider this alternative fast and accommodating.”

“It’s all total rubbish,” long-term campaigner against the tolls and fellow news provider Paul Rees told us. “The sign at the border telling drivers of foreign-registered vehicles to pull over into a special lane – but not explaining why – is ignored by most knowledgeable tourists who know the collection system is in disarray and unlikely to result in any penalty.”

Indeed, the Resident was told by visiting Galician holidaymaker Marcia Fernandez last week that she and her husband simply “don’t pay the tolls as the whole payment system is too confusing”.

Regular visitors to the Algarve, the couple have yet to receive any fines for their trips along “former SCUT highways” – and certainly if they do, they will re-think their preferred holiday destination.

As we reported in January 2014, Portuguese authorities have their hands full trying to follow up the unpaid tolls of around 300,000 Spanish drivers amounting to €11 million – so, for now, the Fernandez family is very possibly at the back of that long queue.

But the truth remains that the Easy Toll system is not only not easy, it is not making anything like the money that is being “lost” every year by the imposition of these tolls.

By “lost” we mean ‘shortfall paid for by the taxpayer’. At last count (December 2014), the tolls were reported to have cost the Portuguese taxpayer around €40 million, while Algarve drivers have had to cough up over €70 million since the system was introduced.

As TripAdvisor suggests at the bottom of its long page dedicated to ‘Algarve: Algarve Toll Road’: “The best advice is to simply avoid the A22 motorway, by using the EN125. It will be slower but not by that much and the element of hassle is therefore removed.”

It will come as no surprise to discover however that the ‘free alternative’ of the EN125 is not explained to drivers as they arrive at the Algarve’s border.

BY NATASHA DONN [email protected]

Photo: Luís Forra/Lusa