Two new payment systems have been put into practice for the former SCUT motorways, allowing drivers of foreign registered vehicles to either pay electronically with a credit or debit card or buy a prepaid card that is activated by text message. However, first reactions from users at the Spanish border this week were of confusion over the electronic payment system.
The new payment method for foreign registered vehicles was unveiled earlier this week by Sérgio Monteiro, Secretary of State for Public Works, stressing the chaos during the Easter holidays would now be a thing of the past.
With the new payment methods, Sérgio Monteiro said "the impact (of tolls) on tourism would be minimal and visitors can holiday in comfort," adding that the system would also result in an additional cash injection of "40 million to €50 million."
The new system features two methods of payment called ‘Easy Toll’ and ‘Toll Card’, developed by the national road company Estradas de Portugal in cooperation with the CTT postal service and electronic payment company UNICRE.
Easy Toll is available at border crossings into Portugal featuring or near a former SCUT motorway; Vila Formoso (A25), Vila Real de Santo António (A22), Chaves (A24) and Vila Nova de Cerveira (EN13). Machines have been installed for users to pay tolls and staff are available to provide information.
The Easy Toll system enables drivers of foreign registered vehicles to associate their number plate to a bank card for a period of up to one month, with toll charges being debited directly from their account.
During the first 15 days of this month, thousands of visitors used the Easy Toll system, with 2,841 people signing up along the A24, 3,839 along the A25, 815 on the EN13 national road and around 6,000 along the Algarve’s A22, road company EP said.
Toll Card meanwhile is a method whereby users can buy a card that is prepaid with five, ten, 20 or 40 euros, and can be activated and linked to a vehicle licence number by sending a text message.
Toll cards can be bought online, at post offices and motorway services stations.
These two new payment methods have been added to existing ones such as ‘Toll Service’ that comprises pre-paid trips for tourists and visitors (available in hotels) and the ‘Visitors’ device, similar to the electronic Via Verde system that is used for a predetermined period before being returned.
Despite the government’s insistence that the new payment methods are simple and easy to use, many visitors say they are confused or would prefer to pay with money rather than bank cards.
At the border crossing in the Algarve, it was found this week that many tourists needed up to five toll assistants to help them choose which payment method to use.
One visitor, José Navarro from Seville who came to Portugal for a three day stay in Albufeira opted for a pre-paid toll ticket with a fixed price of €20, but was surprised when he could not pay in cash and had to use a bank card instead.
"Aren’t there people who just have cash and no bank cards in Portugal? This is very complicated, why didn’t they install a normal toll payment system where those who drive through, pay?" he was quoted as asking by Lusa News Agency.
Another visitor, Jesus de la Rosa, who travelled from Zaragoza to spend 15 days in Andalucía asked why all foreign vehicles had to go into a car park.
When he was told it was to pay tolls, he asked why he couldn’t just take a ticket upon entry to Portugal and pay on his way out.
"I didn’t know there was this electronic system. I think I will get to the first exit, which isn’t paid, and turn my car around, I won’t be visiting Portugal," he told Lusa.
The general feeling at the border this week was one of confusion and doubt, with visitors not understanding the reasoning behind the electronic payment system.
Tolls on the SCUT motorways have also had the negative effect of increasing traffic on other free roads, none more so that along the EN125, which now takes double the length of travel time compared to the A22.
Travelling from Lagos to Vila Real de Santo António (VRSA) along the EN125 can now take over two and a half hours, with a series of congested areas, especially at roundabouts and traffic lights. The aim of an exercise this week by the Lusa News Agency was to attempt to stick to a speed ten kilometres under the national limit, but this was rarely reached on the EN125, where the average speed at rush hour is around 35 kilometres per hour.
The same 132-kilometres- journey along the A22 only takes one hour and ten minutes travelling at 120 kilometres per hour.
Despite the obvious benefits of travelling along the A22, the cost, which from Lagos to VRSA is €11,60 (or €23,20 return) is prohibitive for many residents and visitors.
Local residents have so far benefitted from 10 free trips per month along the formerly free SCUT motorways and a 15 percent discount on all subsequent trips, which have been extended until 30 September.
Following complaints from Aveiro Town Hall, as well as a number of protest groups, the European Commission declared these benefits to people and businesses residing within close proximity of the motorways to be discriminatory and therefore illegal, although charging tolls was not. The Commission ruled that this practice is in contravention of EU legislation and discriminates against fellow Europeans.
Last Friday, a notice was published in the Government Gazette, announcing a new toll discount system from October.
"From 1 October 2012, a new discounts and/or reduced tolls regime will come into effect for the former free SCUT motorways, to ensure the impact associated to the introduction of tolls on the regions served by these roads is lessened, which will conform to the laws of the European Union," read the notice.
Meanwhile, the Commission of Via do Infante (A22) Users, is still campaigning to end tolls on the formerly free SCUT motorways.
In a statement sent to The Portugal News this week, Commission leader, João Vasconcelos explained, "As we predicted, by introducing tolls on the Via do Infante, the government has transformed the Algarve into a war zone."
"Aside from the chaos of intense traffic, there are daily road accidents, many with serious injuries and deaths along the EN125," he added.
Members of the Commission have been remembering those who have lost their lives along the congested EN125 with memorial plaques and flowers.
In response to the introduction of the new toll payment methods that have come into effect this month, Mr. Vasconcelos says these are "causing a great deal of indignation, confusion and doubt at the border crossing near the Guadiana bridge."
"Because of this abominable system, many Spanish tourists drive along the A22 until the first exit, then turn around and leave," he said, adding that the Federation of Spanish Transporters (Fenadismer) has refused the new toll systems.