Bill M. Halkias, PE, F. ASCE, F.ITE, has one of the most impressive CVs in the business.
President since 2019 of the International Road Federation, he has 40 years’ experience in the transportation industry and has also been president of European toll motorways association ASECAP, HELLASTRON (Hellenic Association of Toll Road Network and H.ITE (Hellenic Institute of Transportation Engineers).
Since 1999 he’s been MD and CEO of Attiki Odos (Attica Tollway) Operation and Maintenance Company in Athens, Greece. He holds degrees in rural and surveying engineering (from the National Technical University of Athens) and an M.Sc. in civil engineering (New Jersey Institute of Technology), as well as being a licensed Professional Engineer in Greece and in eight US states.
He has, in short, seen and done a lot over the last few decades – and is therefore a very good sounding board when it comes to the profound challenges faced by the tolling industry.
Perhaps the most pressing of these are the post-Covid recovery and the massive threats posed by climate change.
The effect of the pandemic has been considerable. During the spring 2020 lockdown, some European toll roads lost up to 90% in traffic and up to 80% in revenue.
“On average, European toll roads lost about 50% of the traffic,” Halkias says. “It wasn’t equal across the board but it was a substantial decrease. This obviously had an enormous impact in newly-developed projects, some of which may not be able to make up the payments to the banks, or to even maintain the proper operation including maintenance and all the expenditures that come with that.”
In tolling concessions, government support or contract provisions meant that losses were often covered by the general budget – but that was not the case for construction projects, Halkias says, which have relied on flexibility in payments and in taxation obligations to stay on track.
And even though vaccination programmes are being rolled out in Europe, restrictions on movement and activity are slow to ease in many areas.
“I don't think we will go back into the 2019 traffic volumes soon - it will take some time before we do that,” Halkias says. “Until we see the lifting of the various restrictions, we don't know exactly what is going to happen. But as we know, at least at the European level, there is a big discussion about the so-called recovery plan - and roads are there to play a vital role in the recovery.”
The collective task ahead, he believes, is to create a truly safe, sustainable and efficient multimodal transportation system, of which roads will be a fundamental part. But to achieve this, the tolling sector will need to look at things a little differently going forward.
“We need to think about pricing and see what kind of incentives we can give in order to get in more traffic - obviously without reducing revenue - so that we go back into the same levels,” Halkias says.
Hybrid multi-lane tolls
On urban toll roads there may be an uptick in traffic as people need to return to a physical workspace but continue to avoid public transit or ride-share for fear of infection. However, increasingly flexible work practices may mean that traffic flow eases and congestion decreases, thus impacting people’s willingness to pay tolls.
Kapsch TrafficCom’s recently-announced Hybrid Multi-Lane Toll System on the A8 Athens-Patras motorway could point the way forward here.
It charges drivers for kilometres travelled – rather than, as before, charging them for using an entire section of the road, even if they entered or exited immediately before or after the mainline toll barrier.
Cars are equipped with on-board units attached to the interior windshield and, on entering a toll checkpoint, toll costs will automatically be debited from the owner's customer account. As the vehicle exits the route, any overpaid costs for the entire section will be credited back to the driver's account in a mileage-based billing transaction.
“It makes more sense,” says Halkias. “We know the distance that has not been travelled - and that is being given as a rebate in that particular trip. Because you did not travel the full distance of 50km - you travel only 40km - for this 10km that you did not travel, you will be given a discount.”
This means that the road will now attract shorter-distance trips which previously avoided it, and the move also reflects the penetration of electronic tolling in Greece.
“You can travel throughout Greece with the same transponder with the same account, so you don't need to get invoices from everybody, or to be registered everywhere,” he says.
“So forms of pricing or forms of tolling regimes such as the hybrid will be more and more into our back of our mind to see how we're going to drive more traffic and create better conditions for revenue.”
This discussion feeds into an even bigger subject, the one that overshadows all else: climate change.
'Polluter pays' principle
Halkias has spoken publicly and passionately about this for years. “It relates to the ‘user pays’ or ‘polluter pays’ principle,” he begins. “Transportation contributes 25% of the greenhouse gases produced in Europe and roads and road mobility are a big part of it.”
Legislative and financial encouragement will increasingly be given to developers and users of more environmentally-friendly vehicles – but Halkias says there is a problem.
“We give lower fees to green vehicles but the vehicle, no matter if it is electric or not, still uses the road,” he says. “It still impacts the pavement and it takes the same space that the conventional vehicle takes.”
It’s worth emphasising that toll collection is not merely a tool, it is also a payment for a service. Europe’s toll road network has increased by more than 50% in the last decade, providing better mobility for goods and people across the continent. New mobility needs are emerging, such as electric, connected and autonomous vehicles, and tolling will need to invest to meet them.
But climate change does not just present issues over charging; it will also influence the design, operation and maintenance of toll roads.
“We used to design the hydraulic system and the storm drainage systems on the idea of the '50-year flood',” Halkias explains.
“But every year is worse than the last 50 years! So what happens to the bridge foundations? We need to go deeper in order to protect them from flooding. What happens to the embankments? We will need to increase the area that is going to be used. So all of this will impact on how we design roads in general. But when it comes to toll roads, all of this will increase the expenditure on the financial model for construction and operation. So we will see a big, big change.”
Factors such as environmental monitoring, flood protection, energy conservation and recycling will need to be ‘baked in’ to future projects. The proportion of goods – and people – moving by means other than road needs to increase.
“When we talk about sustainability, we need to sustain the overall system, and not just the roads,” he says.
“So we talk about multimodal transportation, that needs to be sustainable, to be safe and efficient. We need to put down some principles for what we mean when we say ‘sustainable mobility’. We need to limit emissions, we need to contain our waste, we need to promote equity. The form of energy consumed in our projects, in our society, needs to change."
"We need to leave hydrocarbons and go into clean and renewable energy. For example, in our toll roads we have noise panels - maybe those can also be panels to produce electricity?”
Toll roads have a role to play in achieving sustainable mobility, he suggests, by ensuring that construction materials are high quality, and that storm drainage systems can capture water for later use in irrigation, via retention basins. When it comes to operations, extensive traffic management will create the ability to identify and deal with all kinds of potentially dangerous and disruptive incidents, allowing roads to be cleared safely and efficiently and ensuring traffic flows.
“We need to work with the whole system - traffic police, fire brigade, ambulance,” Halkias adds. “Road markings and signs need to be in forms that the new types of vehicles can recognise, providing additional safety and bringing this whole idea of connected and autonomous vehicles closer.”
Tolling operators also need to invest in education for users about how to use the road, and take environmental monitoring on themselves, rather than expecting government agencies to come and do this. “We need to employ mobile equipment that can go and take measures and connect and relate that to the traffic because we do know that carbon monoxide and traffic have a direct relationship - and monitor these and see what we can do,” he says.
“We need to work on energy conservation, to conserve as much as we can recycle. What we collect on our toll road here in Athens, we try to recycle almost everything. We need to improve the local environment, working with local communities to create a sustainable environment for them, for us, for everybody.”
Change is not only happening in technology, he points out – it’s also in our everyday habits. Everything, from banking to Covid vaccinations to permissions to travel, can now be arranged by email or SMS.
“The delivery of goods will have a different role,” he adds. “We didn’t have Amazon 15 years ago. Today we have, and tomorrow packages will be delivered by drones.”
The pandemic has accelerated the expansion of some technologies – and the European Commission’s target is to achieve a carbon-neutral economy with zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. He is optimistic, pointing to vehicle platooning as a real example of what’s possible.
“It's not just a dream, we need to work with sustainability,” he concludes. “In order to have a sustainable environment, we need a sustainable world. Otherwise tomorrow, as we know it, cannot sustain us for the next 30 years.”