Spain's empty roads spell toll ruin
WHERE ARE THE CARS? Spain's extensive toll road network teeters on the brink of bankruptcy as drivers avoid payment as the country's recession plays out..
Author: Katell Abiven
MADRID, Spain - At the Leganes toll plaza outside Madrid employees scan the horizon for cars. Thanks to the country's recession, the stream of paying drivers has slowed to a trickle and the road project is all but bankrupt.
Like the housing bubble, pumped up until it burst in 2008, and its speculation-funded phantom airports, the folly of Spain's road-building boom is now too being laid bare in vast stretches of under-used tarmac.
Jose Antonio Lopez Casas, director of Accesos de Madrid, the company that manages two major highways around the capital, said: "Right now we can't meet our debt repayments. We are in the hands of the judge."
BUBBLE BUILT RECORDS
The two highways, Radial 3 and Radial 5, were opened in 2004 at the height of Spain's construction boom. Now the company owes the equivalent of R5.73-billion to the bank, R2.95-billion to the builders and R3.47-billion to residents evicted to build it.
Since the Madrid-Toledo highway entered restructuring proceedings in May, 2012 the trend has spread, with five other major routes following.
Paco Segura, a transport specialist at the environmental campaign group Ecologists in Action, said: ."It's no surprise. In Spain, just as there was a real estate bubble, there was also a bubble in infrastructure, and one of the areas most developed was motorways.
"We built thousands and thousands of kilometres of motorways on routes that did not have the traffic concentration to justify them."
The craze drove Spain to break records: it became the country in Europe with the most kilometres of motorways and the most commercial international airports and was second only to China in the world for the length of its high-speed train lines, but while the state was approving all these projects by private companies it was also developing a network of toll-free highways, naturally preferred by drivers.
In the first quarter of 2012, with Spain in recession, motorway traffic fell by 8.2% from a year earlier, hitting its lowest level since 1998, the transport ministry said.
"Traffic around Madrid has fallen by between 15 and 20% in the past five years," Lopez said. "In our case it has fallen by much more," he said of his toll roads.
Jacobo Diaz, director of the Spanish Road Association, said: "The economic situation makes the cost of a toll road much more of a factor in deciding whether it or not when there is a free alternative of sufficient quality. The demand has clearly been over-estimated. The actual volume of traffic is about a quarter of what was forecast."
Ecologists in Action estimates the motorway between Madrid and the city of Toledo, about 80km away, receives 11% of the traffic its developers expected.
Around Madrid, meanwhile, "nearly all the motorways which are going bust are not getting 40% of the traffic they planned for when they were built," Segura said.
On the Accesos de Madrid roads, "where there were supposed to be 35 000 vehicles a day, there are 10 000," said Lopez, who holds out little hope of state aid amid the wave of public spending cuts in the recession. "Too much infrastructure was built, no doubt about it. Much of it turned out to be no use."
Lopez added: "It has happened with the motorways, it has happened with the airports. Sooner or later we will find it is happening with the high-speed trains."
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