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Will the end of toll free motorways be against the right of free circulation of EU citizens?

Will the end of toll free motorways be against the right of free circulation of EU citizens?

When Portugal joined the restricted group of 10 member states of the EU, it was set upon a path of economic development and real integration with the rest of its members.

The lack of infrastructures demanded that new motorways needed to be built, but neither the government nor the people were able to afford investments of such magnitude.

Although the investment demanded was high, it was ruled that some of these new motorways would be cost-free, mainly in poorer regions, i.e. the Algarve.

Years have passed since then, and Portugal is now living in the midst of a worldwide economic maelstrom that has altered the country’s ruling on free motorways, because in effect the gratuity was purely nominal. These so called “free” motorways were indeed cost free to the user but the government was ultimately responsible for the direct maintenance costs, through various subsidies given to companies that were responsible for undertaking these tasks.

Thus, with the economic downfall the government decided that motorways couldn’t continue to be a cost free infrastructure but they would instead apply the economic principle of user-payer.

Nowadays all motorways are paid, and most of the regions that benefited from the old free motorways, saw their local areas undervalued and traffic returned to the old and insecure road network.

In one case, the city council of Aveiro fought this ruling to the outmost of their ability, and recently it became common knowledge that the European Commission addressed several questions regarding this matter under the possibility of it becoming a measure undermining the EU Treaty on freedom of circulation of citizens in all EU Member States.

If the European Commission rules against in this matter, a lawsuit could be taken all the way to the European Court of Justice which would be able to enforce legal action against Portugal.

It is common belief that this measure was necessary because of the collapse of Portuguese finances, but the applicable toll costs are excessive to the average person and unsustainable in the county’s current economic environment, as most users depended on the benefit that there were no motorway costs in their economic activities..

As a result of this, last Easter the picturesque region of the Algarve suffered a blow to its record, as seen on all the news headlines on the front pages:

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Is the paying system too complicated for non residents? Are some Portuguese users benefitting from a discount system that only covers a fringe of the users? Is this measure a violation of the EU Treaty? We are inclined to think so… But will the European Commission think the same or will it take into account the economic outcome of our public finances?

Only days after the news from the European Commission came to light, the Transport Commissioner published a statement which stated that no procedure was going to take place against the Portuguese introduced toll system.

This was further corroborated by the Portuguese Economy Ministry which stated,

“the Economy Ministry responded by clarifying that the European Commission had not declared the charging of tolls illegal, only the ten free trips awarded to people and businesses residing within close proximity of the motorways and discounts granted once these trips have been exhausted.”

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If it is ruled illegal or not, the immediate direct effect turned out to be a massive decrease of traffic on these formerly free routes.

The newsstand once called it “madness in the making”, let’s hope not…

Duarte Silva Marques

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