Robust enforcement strategy needed for free flow toll roads

Timidity has no place in effective enforcement operations on free-flow toll roads, says the NRA's Cathal Masteron. 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
Charging, Tolling & Road Pricing / January 10, 2012
M50 Republic of Ireland
The 42km-long M50 is the Republic of Ireland's busiest motorway, carrying an annual average of 100,000 vehicles per day

Timidity has no place in effective enforcement operations on free-flow toll roads, says the NRA's Cathal Masteron. 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, project manager with the 94 National Roads Authority of Ireland (NRA), bases his assertion on 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 on 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 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."

Supporting infrastructures

Masterson says that a good-quality national vehicle register is essential if operations are to be successful.

"Overall our national database is excellent with only relatively minor issues.

The principle problem is people not providing timely notification of change of vehicle ownership. The garage trade has online access now, however, and we've seen big improvements over the last couple of years." Criminal cloning of license plates does occur but this is a "very small" issue: "We still see better compliance than in the case of, for instance, vehicle tax evasion.

"We also have excellent relations with the Courts Service who process the civil summonses and early engagement on this front was essential to ensure that they were able to resource the high volumes which we expected to have to process."

Future plans

Future plans include making the enforcement operation on the M50 more cost-efficient in terms of overall operating costs.

Masterson: "The total operational cost including the enforcement element of the business and VAT is expected to be about e30 million for this year. I'd like to see that reduced by 15 to 20 per cent in the next two to three years. At the same time, we're also looking to grow overall traffic and revenues as well as keep the customers satisfied." Further out, there are plans to expand the system.

"At present, we have a 42km road with two tolling points. Adding more tolling points would result in a fairer system which potentially generates more revenue but that's a political decision with no set dates. Given that there are plans for a general election in the coming months, any such decision is frozen at present," Masterson concludes. n

The 42km-long M50 is the Republic of Ireland's busiest motorway, carrying an annual average of 100,000 vehicles per day

A robust and escalating legal procedure can end with defaulters' assets being seized and their credit ratings being affected

The M50 Toll Road

The 42km-long M50 motorway, which circles the north, west and southern boundaries of the City of Dublin is Ireland's busiest motorway. It is operated by BetEire Flow, a consortium made up of the French toll operator 480 Sanef and French tolling system designer CS. The road carries an annual average of 100,000 vehicles per day, peaking at over 120,000.

A recent e1bn upgrade has increased capacity on the mainline and introduced free-flow tolling to replace the previous Westlink toll plaza. The new free-flow system became operational in August 2008.

The CEN-compatible 5.8GHz DSRC technology is a carry-over from the previously existing tag system which was operated when barriers were still in place. Multi-point tolling was an ambition during the planning phases, says Masterson, but in its finalised form a straightforward replacement of the existing plaza was the result.

The toll road's customers can pay via onboard tag, by registering their vehicles with the operator for a video account, or by paying Unregistered Toll (UTT) payments. These UTT payments are made 20 per cent by phone, 40 per cent in retail outlets and 40 per cent online

eFlow, the M50's free-flow tolling brand, currently has around 600,000 registered vehicles out of a national vehicle fleet of about 2.5 million. That figure includes video customers; the total number of tags in circulation is around 400,000 and around 75 per cent of traffic which uses the M50 on a daily basis is made up of registered us

Non-payment procedure

Unregistered users of the M50 have up until 8.00pm the next day to pay the standard e3 toll. Should they fail to do so, an evidence pack is generated along with a Standard Toll Request, which adds a default payment of another e3. Customers can settle this online or at outlet shops within 14 days and no further action is taken. Should that not happen, an Unpaid Toll Notice is generated. The non-payer is sent time-stamped photographic evidence of the offence and a fine of e39.50 is generated. There are then a further 56 days in which to pay. Following that, the evidence pack is passed to the enforcement service provider, Pierse & Fitzgibbon Solicitors, and a solicitor's letter (which incurs a further e98.00 charge) is sent. Cumulative fines and tolls per passage can be between e143.50 and e146.50, depending on the classification of the vehicle.

Ultimately, non-payment can result in a court summons. Following the launch of the new system eFlow gave users three months' grace to get used to barrier-free operation but started pursuing evaders and issuing summonses from December 2008 onwards. Masterson notes that there are thresholds for recovery which are taken into consideration when trying to maintain cost-effectiveness. The first court case took place in June 2009 and since then eFlow has been issuing 700-1,000 summonses each month.

Post-court there is a series of options which include employing a sheriff to seize goods from those with judgements against them. Defaulters' details may also be registered with Stubbs Gazette, which has implications for their credit ratings

Getting the message across

That the M50 tolling scheme is a state operation backed up with specific legislation and revenues pass to the NRA's coffers clarifies the legal situation a great deal in the Republic of Ireland. It also means that in the case of managing enforcement certain avenues of approach are open that may not be in other countries and for other road operators. For example, the NRA as a state agency is able to access national vehicle registers in other countries which may not be accessible to private sector concessionaires.

Masterson notes that it is incumbent upon the state, and not the concessionaire, to get the legal framework right and provide an environment in which enforcement can be allowed to be effective.

"The general media love stories where the little person takes on and beats the big state entity," says Riobard Pierse, managing partner of Pierse & Fitzgibbon Solicitors, the M50's enforcement service provider.

"We had some initial problems with publicity and you have to be careful with court cases in order to stop the wrong message getting out.

"It's important to choose which battles to fight in the public arena. In going to court, we try to make contact with all defendants. We will work with them and take account of circumstances - for example, vehicles being taken without owners' permission. Fairness is essential but serious and serial offenders should be seen to be targeted. There is a general perception among toll evaders that the courts would tend to be more sympathetic when it comes to tolling cases as compared to, say, speeding and drink-driving. So there's an education process that has to go on there, too, such that we end up with a situation where offenders' excuses are exposed as unreasonable and therefore fall on deaf ears.

One of the most effective ways to track road users' views on issues such as enforcement is to track the debates on social media."

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