Robust enforcement strategy needed for free flow toll roads

Timidity has no place in effective enforcement operations on free-flow toll roads, says the TII’s Cathal Masterson. What’s needed is a robust strategy which starts big and reduces in size over time, rather than starts small and gains a reputation for being easy to avoid.

In Europe at least, there seems to be a genuine fear that enforcement on free-flow tolled facilities either will not work or cannot be made to operate effectively, according to Cathal Masterson.

Masterson, a project manager with the Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII), bases his assertion on the experience of operating Dublin’s M50 toll road.

“Enforcement isn’t pretty but it is possible to have an effective system, one which pays for itself and secures the revenue stream if you have the right approach and put the right processes in place. We’ve been able to prove that on the M50 but talking to peers it’s apparent that in Europe the business case for barrier-free tolling is not as well understood as it might be. European concessionaires still have trouble convincing financiers that effective free-flow enforcement is possible. The US, by contrast, seems to have a better handle on things.” Tag-based tolling is the preferred solution for the facility (see Sidebar, the M50 Toll Road) but Masterson says that the overriding concern from an enforcement perspective is to promote compliance.

Revenue recovery

“We were worried that without a strong enforcement regime we would be left facing a hard-core compliance problem.

“In general, as with any other compliance regime, we wanted to recover 100 per cent of the money due to us. We wanted cost-neutrality and a good level of publicity. We also wanted widespread coverage and a flexible approach which would offer potential evaders no recognisable pattern to avoid.”

Last year, the M50 toll scheme achieved a recovery rate of 103 per cent including toll and penalty revenues. It uses fixed video enforcement which captures images of all vehicles that use the road. Mobile enforcement was considered but the legal situation in the Republic of Ireland precludes this: the viability of an individual’s dwelling and so forth made implementation of mobile enforcement extremely difficult although this may yet change in the future. Another issue was congestion; the M50 is a very busy road and it was felt that there would be traffic and safety issues associated with going mobile.

Non-payers are pursued using civil rather than criminal legislation (see Sidebar, ‘Non-payment procedure’). Masterson makes two broad observations in relation to this: that there is on-going user interest in registering as a toll customer (this is currently running at about 6-7,000 registrations each month); and that global compliance rates are rising (from the low 90 per cents at the time of the scheme’s go-live to around 95-96 per cent at present).

“The general business trends are good,” Masterson continues. “From an operational perspective, a targeted media campaign is very important – although publicity can be a two-edged weapon that works against you [see Sidebar, ‘Getting the message across’]. We experience a regular media attention which we are happy to encourage as long as the underlying point, that there’s financial pain associated with non-compliance, is made.

“I’d say that we started with a hefty, if not an industrial level of enforcement. The M50 generates revenues of €100-110m annually and our initial investment in enforcement was around 4 per cent of that. But remove that investment and revenues would fall by about the same amount or more. In our experience, it’s better to start big and reduce the overall effort than to start small.”