By INÊS LOPES – [email protected]
Images of dozens of tourists queuing up to pay for the tolls on the A22 Guadiana border during the Easter period have led to widespread debates to find solutions to a problem that is impacting negatively on the Algarve’s tourism industry.
Most political and anti-tolls groups in the region have called on the government to either suspend the tolls, create further exemption schemes for tourists or simplify the toll payment system, if the tourism industry is to be saved from “total collapse”.
But until answers emanate from the government, the opposition continues to discuss ways of fighting the measure.
Around 50 people, including representatives from the Comissão de Utentes da Via do Infante (CUVI), the A22 users’ commission, Algarve workers’ union União Geral dos Trabalhadores (UGT) and the Algarve Tourism Board, met last Saturday for a public debate held in Vila Real de Santo António, where the “grave consequences” of the implementation of tolls were discussed.
A manifesto for “a toll-free Portugal-Spain border” (Manifesto Luso-Espanhol em Defesa de Áreas Transfronteiriças Livres de Portagens) was also reinforced with further entities, such as the UGT and the Faro Bikers’ Club, joining the cause.
Meanwhile, national roads authority Estradas de Portugal (EP) has announced that it will be reinforcing the payment facilities at the Guadiana border (A22) with another machine, and that it was intending to inform foreigners of the options to pay for the tolls online.
However, António Pina, the president of the Algarve Tourism Board, has already slammed the “medicine” the EP is trying to prescribe for the region’s “cancer”.
He told Lusa news agency: “The solutions EP is proposing are like prescribing aspirin for a cancer patient. The toll payment system represents a big technical problem that needs to be resolved. The government needs to stand up and face the problem by commissioning a study into the economic impact the tolls are having on the region. Is it generating money or is money being wasted? This issue is far too important.”
João Vasconcelos from the CUVI shares the opinion of António Pina but added that the only viable solution is the suspension of the tolls.
He said: “Installing a new payment machine on the A22 or giving holidaymakers the opportunity to pay for the tolls online is like medicine to soothe, but not cure, the pain.”
João Vasconcelos also said that a recent suggestion to create exemptions for drivers of foreign plated vehicles was “highly discriminatory” to the Portuguese.
During the debate last Saturday, the CUVI announced that it had requested an urgent meeting with the Minister for the Economy, as it had been waiting for this opportunity since last August.
All hopes now lie in the government’s hands after it announced that it would be re-evaluating the situation regarding the tolls on former SCUT roads in June.
The commission also added that it was hoping to deliver its petition against the tolls at the beginning of next month in Parliament. At the time of going to press, the petition had around 5,100 signatures.
To sign and read the petition in English, please visit the Algarve Resident website and click on the anti-tolls button on the right-hand side of the homepage. To contact the A22 users’ commission in English, please email Michael Ferrada at [email protected]
Drivers of foreign-plated vehicles who use the A22 without paying the tolls won’t face a fine, said the president of the Algarve Hotels and Resorts Association (AHETA).
Elidérico Viegas told Correio da Manhã newspaper last week that he doubts the automatic number plate recognition system in place is capable of reading a foreign number plate and that an information board should be placed at the entrance to the A22 advertising the fact that “nothing will happen to drivers in foreign plated cars who wish to use the road without paying the tolls”.
National road authority Estradas de Portugal (EP) has already come forward to say that the system is able to recognise all number plates, “Portuguese and foreign”, and from the moment a driver is detected as having committed an infraction, such as the non-payment of tolls, they will be tracked down and fined.
A spokesman for EP also added that road concession patrol vehicles can intercept those drivers who have not paid their tolls.
Armando Santana, president of the association representing hire car companies in the Algarve (Associação de Empresas de Rent-a-Car do Algarve) says most foreign hire car clients leave the country without paying the tolls as they don’t understand the payment system.
“It is mainly the journeys made during the last two days of holiday that go without being paid as they would have to wait 48 hours to be able to pay at the Post Office or Payshops.
“Foreigners think the system is overly confusing and ask why Portugal couldn’t have implemented a simpler payment system with actual toll booths on the motorway.”