MONTREAL, Que. — A 61% increase in the toll truckers pay to take Montreal’s A-30 ring road has the Quebec Trucking Association (QTA) and others screaming blue murder. A30 Express, the private partner in charge of the A-30 completion, says the increases respect its contract with Quebec’s Ministry of Transport (MTQ). The QTA sees it as a money-grubbing betrayal.
“What we do not understand about it is how something we have been asking for for many years, to offer fluidity, how in two years the government has managed to increase the tolls by up to 60%. There are no increases in the cost of living or inflation to justify, contractually, that they are entitled to it. They want to get their dough as soon as possible,” fumes Marc Cadieux, director general, QTA.
The A-30 is a blessed release from Montreal’s traffic hell, over the entrances to which should be printed the poet Dante’s famous warning, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
In 2014, a daily average of 20,000 vehicles, including 2,800 trucks, paid to cross the toll plaza near the A-30’s western end. Elsewhere on the A-30, which has exits on either side of the toll plaza, as many as 25,400 vehicles a day, with up to 25% of them trucks, zoom back and forth.
Cadieux sees the increase, which, for trucks, jumped 35 cents after the first year to $1.50 per axle, then 35 cents this Feb. 1 to $1.85 per axle, as subverting the intent of the ring road: to encourage vehicles, “so that accident-wise and time-wise, they will use it. Our members are pissed off about it. There is nothing to justify the government increasing it in a fragile time and difficult economy.”
(The toll for cars has risen 60% since the A-30 opened).In a partial explanation of the increases, A30 Express says that it underestimated how many vehicles would use the ring road in its first year of operation. The tolls are linked to traffic levels: The more vehicles that use the road, the more that A30 Express is contractually allowed to charge, ostensibly to cover higher short-and long-term maintenance costs, and inflation.
Cadieux comments on this rationale. “It is partly true, but not to the extent of wanting to cash in so fast. You have a new structure that should be problem-free for many years.”
In any case, says Vanessa Miceli, communications, A30 Express, “(The increase) was subject to review by the MTQ, prior to being implemented, so it was determined that we were respecting the agreement.”
The tolls that A30 Express sets per axle must be between a minimum and maximum amount, depending on the average daily traffic flow. The toll for vehicles in Category 2, which includes transport trucks, cannot exceed 1.5 times the toll for Category 1 vehicles, which includes cars.
The not-so-simple answer to why A30 Express did not exercise its right to charge less than the maximum was not readily available. “The min/max can change, depending on circumstances, based on traffic conditions, but it is very hard for me to say when or how it will be applied,” Miceli says.
In response to one comment that floated across my desk, that the contract requires the government to pay the consortium money if it is not making enough, Miceli responds with an unambiguous “No.” However, A30 Express has to give 50% of any revenues above a certain threshold to MTQ. That threshold was $3.08 million in year one, rising to $7.36 million in year 26. Based on A30 Express’s 2014 traffic figures, and assuming that the average Category 2 vehicle had three axles, toll revenues will be about $20.7 million in 2015. MTQ would be entitled to $7.86 million of that.
The tolls represent a rapidly growing cash cow for MTQ. Is setting the toll each year a purely mathematical exercise and MTQ simply double-checks the figures? Does MTQ have any right or obligation to adjudicate a balance between the toll hikes that A30 Express requests, what is reasonable for road users to pay and the health of the Montreal area’s heavily used highway system?
How will carriers and truckers react to the increase? Carriers love the A-30, but dumb they are not. Robert Transport, for example, launched a study a while ago to determine when it makes sense to take the A-30 or other routes. Other carriers are reportedly considering crossing the Island in off-peak hours, rather than take the ring road.
Whether more urban myth or fact, there is a perception, not entirely mistaken, that trucks have been dodging the toll by taking Route 201 through Salaberry-de-Valleyfield. They will hit some traffic lights and 50 km/h speed limits, but they still get to enjoy most of the ring road’s pleasures. The town’s Municipal Council is concerned enough that on Jan. 20, it passed a resolution to delay increasing the toll, to find a solution that would reduce traffic on Route 201.
“Citizens have made regular complaints since 2013 (when the A-30 opened),” says Pierre Chevrier, director general, Salaberry-de-Valleyfield. MTQ reports that the percentage of traffic on Route 201 that are trucks has been stable in the years 2009 to 2013, but it is planning an origin/destination study on Route 201 for heavy trucks. “MTQ will do a study later this spring. They will do a study and take pictures to see if trucks are avoiding the tolls,” Chevrier says.
Truckers who have to cough up their own money for the rising tolls might be more inclined to take Route 201, but there is still a lot to recommend the A-30. Nova Scotia-based Eassons Transport runs mostly five- and six-axle trucks on the A-30, and the company pays the toll.
“We’ve seen an increase in utilization since we began using the A-30. With tight deliveries and timelines…on-time deliveries by taking the A-30 has helped with better service, with little or no delays like we have seen traveling through Montreal,” reports Gordie Atwood, recruiter and safety coordinator, Eassons Transport. “I don’t think it is to the point yet where people need to be screaming and hollering. Other tolls…the link to PEI costs $50. We certainly see a lot of benefits.”