The French Connection

Dec. 28, 2000
Since celebrating the 40th anniversary of the interstate this past summer, more attention is being focused on the derelict condition of the system. Mention our country's crumbling infrastructure and somebody's sure to have a story they've heard about a chunk of concrete falling into traffic from a deteriorating bridge overpass. Then there are stories about monster potholes large enough to swallow an entire car. With stories like these gaining attention, crumbling highways are on their way to becoming urban legends.
Since celebrating the 40th anniversary of the interstate this past summer, more attention is being focused on the derelict condition of the system. Mention our country's crumbling infrastructure and somebody's sure to have a story they've heard about a chunk of concrete falling into traffic from a deteriorating bridge overpass. Then there are stories about monster potholes large enough to swallow an entire car. With stories like these gaining attention, crumbling highways are on their way to becoming urban legends.

But all legends are based in some fact no matter how slim and the decay of our highway infrastructure is a fact. For instance, recent studies have concluded that a third of the nation's bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

As construction costs rise and sources of revenue shrink, it is becoming more difficult to find the money to maintain the highway system. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that it needs $53 billion a year to maintain the current condition of the country's highway infrastructure. In order to make improvements on the system $72 billion a year is needed.

In a country like the U. S., whose existence is based on opposition to taxes, where will this money come from? One possible solution is toll roads. Not a popular idea but one that is being considered.

Toll roads and turnpikes have enjoyed success in some eastern and midwestern states and one of the newest highways built in the country is a toll road--the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor. Abroad, countries, such as France, have relied heavily on tolls to finance, build and maintain their road network.

Concession system

In the mid 1950s when the U.S. government was passing the tax bills to finance the building of its interstate system, France was looking at ways to improve its network of roads, considered by many to be one of the best. At the time the country had barely 80 km (50 miles) of highways mostly located in the area west of Paris.

In 1955 it was decided to implement toll concessions to finance, build, maintain and operate a modern road network. Though the law governing the concessions has changed slightly since 1955, its basic intention remains the same. It authorized private and semipublic companies to build and maintain highways in exchange for the right to collect tolls on the roads built. As a result of the concession system, a road network of more than 6,000 km (3,720 miles) has been built using very little government money.

The average toll rate in France in 38 centimes per km for cars and 68 centimes per km for trucks. This comes out to about 5 cents per mile for cars and 7 cents per mile for trucks. But this is an average. The setting of toll rates on a particular motorway is determined by how much it costs to build it. Motorways through hilly or mountainous regions, which involve the construction of many tunnels and bridges and therefore are more expensive to build, will have a higher toll. Motorways built over flat plains, requiring few bridges and costing less to construct, will have a lower toll. Recently, however, the price of a toll has gone up. According to the French Technology Press Office, a 3% nationwide increase in tolls was put into effect this February. Funds from this increase will be used to build another 2,500 km (1,550 miles) of motorways.

ROADS & BRIDGES was in France last fall meeting with three concessionaires to learn more about the French concession system. While operating in different regions of France with distinct geographical obstacles to over come they all share certain similarities.

Customer service is high on the list. Drivers are viewed as clients and many precautions are taken to make their trip safe and to guarantee their satisfaction with the road. It may be as pragmatic as placing emergency call boxes along the road or as whimsical as sculptures along the sides of the road and in rest areas to encourage the drivers to stop, rest and stave off fatigue.

Technology is another important part of a concessionaire's operations. Each concessionaire is committed to using the latest technology in state-of-the-art traffic control centers to help alleviate traffic congestion, prevent accidents and ensure a swift, smooth ride.


The Societe des Autoroutes Rhine-Alpes (AREA) operates in the Rhine-Alpes region in the east of France near the Swiss border. Founded in 1971, it's a semi-public joint stock company operating motorways under contract with the state until 2016.

AREA is a subsidiary of the Societe des Autoroutes Paris Rhin Rhine (SAPRR), which holds the majority of the capital on behalf of the state. SAPRR also operates 1,554 km (963 miles) of motorways in the region southeast of Paris.

AREA is one of the smallest concessionaires with 368 km (221 miles) of motorways, but despite its small size it has contributed significantly to the economic development of the Rhone-Alpes region.

For instance, 150 companies have located along the Grenoble-Chambery motorway since it opened, turning around a trend of economic decline which began in the 1970s. According to AREA, the motorway has been important in bringing and keeping jobs in the region. AREA's motorways also have played a part in making the region France's second most popular tourist destination. Being located near the Alpes the motorways lead to the approaches of many alpine ski resorts.

In addition, the motorways have linked the main towns in the region and increased the region's mobility by 60%. This has improved the quality of life for the inhabitants by giving them the option to live in the countryside and commute into town for work--something that was not possible before the motorways.

The concessionaire operates a traffic control center--Centre d'exploitation de securite et d'assistance routiere (CESAR)--which provides information on breakdowns, traffic density and accidents along the entire network for 24 hours a day. CESAR dispatches ambulances and repair trucks as needed and communicates traffic information to the drivers via illuminated traffic signs. Since June 1995, the concessionaire has been implementing a remote toll collection system using a telebadge. Within a few months all 32,000 subscribers, who had been previously using magnetic cards, went over to the new system, which offers a special lane only for telebadge users. AREA plans to expand its motorway with the A51 Grenoble-Siseron motorway. This route will improve the movement of traffic in the Alps, lighten the load along the Rhone Valley, open up rural areas and strengthen the link between the region and the Mediterranean.


Located in the south and southeast of France, Autoroutes du Sud de la France (ASF) operates the largest section of motorways in the country. With a little more than 1,862 km (1,154 miles) of roads and an additional 850 km (527 miles) under construction, ASF is the second largest toll concessionaire in Europe behind Italy's Autostrata, and the third largest in the world. France has a long tradition of celebrating life through cultural beauty, and ASF is dedicated to continuing this tradition. The concessionaire refuses to be limited to the notion that a highway is only a strip of concrete or asphalt used for transportation. Fueled with imagination, ASF's approach employs artists and architects who have lifted the motorway from the mundane, providing a driving experience that is both pleasurable and practical.

To that end, its network of motorways feature rest areas artistically designed and decorated with modern sculptures. One rest area along A7 near the Spanish border has been visually enhanced with a large pyramid, similar in appearance to those of the Mayan's in Mexico. The rest area, however, landscaped with flowers and shrubs, is softer, more inviting than the Mayan's. Other aspects of ASF's motorways also are beautified. The portal of the Puymorens' tunnel, in the Pyrenees, looks more like a modern church with its large stained glass windows, than an entrance to a hole in a mountain. The toll station on A7 at Lanon de Provence, designed by architects Gilles Barr and Franoise Rusterucci, with its graceful, sweeping arches act as a symbolic gate welcoming drivers into the Provence region. And there are many more works of art dotting the motorways of ASF

ASF is practical as well with a state-of-the-art traffic control center near the city of Avignon. The center works closely with the concessionaire's radio station--Radio Trafic 107.7--which offers up-to-date information on the conditions of the roads.

The station provides news, music and traffic conditions but will interrupt its broadcasting to announce the latest accidents and provide alternative routes. The station does not do this often because ASF has the lowest accident rate of any concessionaire, and the accident rate on all tollways in France is four times lower than other roads.

The radio station also broadcasts the location of speed traps. The police who patrol the motorways are not affiliated with the concessionaires, so in an effort to keep their clients happy they clue them in to the location of the police. During the week one out of three drivers listen to the station. On weekends and holidays the listeners double as two out of three drivers tune in.


France's first private highway concessionaire is Compagnie Financiere et Industrielle des Autoroutes (Cofiroute), which operates 1,100 km (682 miles) of motorways, and two tunnels totaling 16 km (10 miles) long, in the west of France, roughly between Paris and Nantes. Cofiroute is planning to build a new tunnel in the Paris area on A86. No one likes living next to a highway. The noise and pollution generated by the traffic makes an unpleasant neighbor. So to avoid this Cofiroute decided to bury the motorway in order to hide it from the residents living in the area. The motorway also will be near the Versailles Palace, an important cultural, and historical landmark whose beauty some feel may be marred by an above ground highway. When completed the tunnel will be 10 km (six miles) long with top and bottom roadways running in opposite directions in a double deck configuration. This will be the first double deck tunnel in Europe and will be designed to only carry automobile traffic.

Like their counterparts, Cofiroute is dedicated to using technology to improve its service. They too employ many of the technological features as the other concessionaires--traffic control center, highway-specific radio station, traffic analysis system--but they are also involved in developing a personal information system for drivers, called Adams.

Adams is a system that delivers real-time highway information directly to someone's car as it drives along the motorway. Designed in cooperation with Renault, the system provides information on the distance to the next exit, estimated time of arrival, and location and availability of gas stations, hotels and rest areas.

Transmission beacons are placed at toll stops, rest areas and other locations along the motorway. They are connected with fiber optics to an information and control center, where information is analyzed then distributed throughout the network to the transmission beacons. The unit on board the car picks up these transmissions when it passes the beacon. The onboard unit collects such information as distance traveled, fog, heavy rain, and sends it to the beacons.

Adams also provides any information that would normally be displayed on variable message panels to the driver's personnel unit. All information is displayed on a small rectangular screen located in the center of the dashboard just to the right of the driver.

Internationally, Cofiroute has played an active role in the construction of California's SR 91 project, a 10-mile, four-lane electronic toll collection highway built in the medium of SR 91 in Orange County. The company also manages a toll station on the Severn Bridge near Bristol, England.

Tollway building spreads

The idea of concession-run toll roads has been spreading to other parts of the world. The M1 in Hungary, and Highway 407 near Toronto, Canada, are two examples. Financing new road construction through tolls has even spread to California, the land of the freeway. The San Joaquim Hills Transportation Corridor is the first major transportation project built with zero federal funds and the first toll road in California. Through the sale of bonds, the $1.4 billion needed to build the highway was raised with nominal state financial support.

However, implementing a concession for a road is not necessarily a trouble free endeavor. Various financial aspects must be addressed, including the setting of tolls at a rate that will ensure the recovery of the investment while operating the road at standards acceptable to the user.

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