French watchdog criticises potential toll price hike

France’s competition watchdog has criticised plans by private infrastructure businesses to invest an extra € 3.6 billion in French toll roads in exchange for prolonged operating concessions as “unfair”.

The two-year-old proposal – approved by the Government and now under review by the European Union’s antitrust regulator – should be seen as an opportunity to renegotiate concessions in favour of the state and of users, Bruno Lasserre, chairman of Autorite de La Concurrence, told Bloomberg this week.

The French antitrust body recommended reviewing the contracts with private motorway companies to ensure potential toll increases were tied to spikes in traffic and not to the rate of inflation, as they are presently.

It also recommended that operators be forced to reinvest more earnings or share them with Government if profitability rises above current records. At the moment, the tolls on France’s privatised motorways are delivering an up to 24 per cent profit to the companies that run them.

According to Bloomberg’s Francois de Beaupuy, the report is a blow for the Government, which has been banking on the planned four-year investment package to support jobs in a struggle to spark economic growth.

“It’s also a blow for the motorway companies, which are seeking to obtain an extension of their concessions in exchange for their spending.”

France’s pricey toll roads have come under official scrutiny before. English speaking newspaper The Local reported in 2013 about a stinging report from France’s national auditor.

Back then, the auditor found that the private companies that run French motorways pocketed a total of €7.6 billion, but doubted the profits were being reinvested back into the network.

France’s trucking community welcomed the watchdog's critical report, saying driving on a motorway in France could soon become a luxury.

However, any changes to the current system won’t come quickly. Because the toll way contracts are set in concrete, there is little hope of change before the agreements expire in 2027 and 2033, the competition watchdog said.

Meantime, the French Government ended a controversial plan to levy a green tax on heavy trucks (ecotax).

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