The government will not abandon plans to introduce tolls on the A22 (Via do Infante) motorway, but residents could be exempted from having to pay tolls throughout the route for up to eight years. The olive branch came in an interview with Patinha Antão, the Assistant Secretary of State for Health, who said that the tolls were vital in order to fund spending programmes.
Antão said that residents living near the former SCUT (toll free) routes, who are forced to use them everyday, could be exempted for a fixed period of time. “We do not exclude the possibility of exemptions on the Via do Infante, for example, that is an area for negotiation. There may also be other criteria, such as exemptions on routes connecting large cities, for example Faro and Lagos. Traffic surveys are currently in progress so that the government can decide the correct parameters to apply,” he added.
Antão said the Algarve would be given preferential treatment in one respect: “We consider it only fair that residents have the maximum exemption period of eight years for the simple reason that, at least half the Algarve, the Barlavento, was prejudiced greatly in terms of its access to the motorway. Therefore, we have stressed that the entire route should be toll-free for residents.”
Non-residents will have to pay
But, in spite of concessions, the government says it will stick to its intention of introducing tolls on all former SCUT routes. Antão made it clear that all non-residents, whether working people or tourists, will have to pay the tolls and the A22 will have no special status in this respect.
“It really is a question of fair play. Are we going to exclude one or more of these routes, or should they all be included in this nationwide collective undertaking? All these routes could be candidates for exceptions of one kind or other. The A22 has excellent arguments against the introduction of tolls but residents and local authorities are demanding exemptions on other highways as well,” said Antão.
Antão denies that tourists will find Algarve tolls off-putting. “We are dealing with tourists whose spending power is quite high, so I don’t think that tolls will influence their choice of holiday destination,” he said. Antão also believes that the payment of tolls in the Algarve is a relatively minor issue when set against improvements to the region’s transport infrastructure envisaged under the National Road Plan.
The minister cites various proposals: more connections between cities and villages, coastal links between the principal tourist zones, new inland routes, a surface metro system and improvements to the existing train service. These improvements can only be financed, he suggests, through the payment of tolls.
Furthermore, in order to maintain the SCUT routes free of cost to the user, the government would have to pay 10,000 million euros to the operators, “a colossal sum” equivalent to one and a half times the size of the state budget, or the value of five Vasco da Gama bridges, according to Antão.
“scrambled for votes”
Antão also criticised the former Guterres government for introducing the SCUT system: “The Socialist Party created this problem and then offloaded the impossible burden of paying 700 million euros every year, for 30 years, onto subsequent governments.”
Antão also says the Socialist government overlooked a “minor detail” – it advanced with the SCUT plans without concluding the environmental impact study. “While the studies were being concluded, many works had to be halted and others were remodelled, all at phenomenal costs,” he said.
He added that the concessionary SCUT routes were introduced for entirely electoral reasons in what he describes as “a desperate scramble for votes”. Antão says that whichever political party was in power, the only way the introduction of tolls could be avoided would be if the government were to increase taxes to pay for spending programmes or withdraw funds from crucial areas such as education and health.