After the Swiss referendum of 28 February backing a second Gotthard road tunnel, attention will now shift to defining the framework for building and operating it. One critical idea to be considered is to finance the renovation of the existing tunnel and the construction of the second one through a toll. A one stand-alone toll at the Gotthard is justifiable because of the special nature of this major infrastructural asset. First, it is on the main transit route across the Alps and a toll could help to compensate for the external costs of through traffic. Secondly, the regular traffic jams at the tunnel could be reduced through charges. Thirdly, at 17 kms, this is, after all, by far the longest road tunnel in Switzerland.

Inexpensive toll collection

Last, but no least, the Gotthard project will cost SFr 2.8 bn and a toll is the most sensible way to finance this massive investment. Instead of letting taxpayers foot the bill, it should be users who finance the second tunnel – exactly those people profiting from it. The administrative costs associated with toll collection are rather low: while introducing a nationwide system of road pricing would entail substantial investments, a tunnel toll only requires collection booths at both ends. Modern technology will further facilitate toll collection.

Neighbouring Austria has levied special tolls on six sections of transalpine motorway for decades. These include five long tunnels and the Brenner Pass, which, alongside the Gotthard, serves as one of the most important North-South routes across the Alps. Since, 1968, Switzerland has also had a toll tunnel – the Great St Bernhard – where a one way trip through the privately financed tunnel costs SFr 29.30. No one questions that practice.

Politically, a toll could reconcile opponents of a second Gotthard tunnel. Their main concern has been that the increased capacity would lead to more transit traffic. By financing the second tunnel through a toll that dampens demand, politicians would give credibility to their reassurances that building the second tunnel would not have the feared impact.

Portal des Gotthard-Strassentunnels

Designed from the start with a second tunnel in mind: the wide “wings” at the entrances to the Gotthard road tunnel by Ticinese architect Rino Tami. (Wikimedia Commons)

A study by Economiesuisse, (the Swiss business federation, ed) worked on a toll concept whereby a private company would build and operate the tunnel, then after 50 years hand it hack free of charge to the state. On that basis, the project could be financed by a SFr 21 toll for cars and SFr 82 for lorries. Regular users or local residents could be offered discounts. For trucks, the toll would have to be set off against the LSVA (Switzerland’s Distance Related Heavy Vehicle Fee, levied since 2001, ed) as the country’s transport deal with the EU sets a maximum fee for single transits through Switzerland. Given that the state can raise finance more cheaply than a private company, tolls could be lower under public sector operation.

Based on the 6.3m vehicles using the tunnel each year, (of which 5.3m are cars), an average toll of SFr 20 would produce annual revenues of around SFr 120m. If the transit fee were only half of that (i.e. SFr 10), total revenues would still amount to 500m SFr within a decade.

The pricing structure should not, however, primarily be determined by financing needs. Charges should rather be set according to their impact on traffic flows. That means different changes could be levied at differing times of day, reflecting capacity bottlenecks. Tolls on days of regular jams (like Easter weekend) could be significantly higher than during quieter periods. Such variable charges would smoothen traffic peaks and reduce the external costs of congestions for drivers and residents.

Avoid traffic diversion

Tariffs should also be at levels attractive enough to avoid diverting traffic to other routes. However, concern about diversion is, if anything, a further argument for a toll. Other important North-South transalpine axes have had tolls for years. These include the Brenner Pass (Austria), the Gt St Bernhard tunnel (Switzerland/Italy) and the Montblanc tunnel (France). Building a second Gotthard tunnel offering improved traffic flows would, if toll free, draw traffic from these alternatives.

Finally, there is the domestic political concern that a Gotthard toll might be seen to “isolate” Ticino from the rest of Switzerland. But the established car trains operating through the Albula, Furka, Lötschberg, Oberalp und Vereina tunnels already charge. Regions like Goms or the Lower Engadine rely on these tunnels for their links with the outside world. And the financial burden for drivers from Ticino could be mitigated by generous frequent user rebates (e.g. discounted ticket for 10 journeys, annual season tickets). Alternatively, the cantonal motor vehicle levy in Ticino could be lowered.

Overall, the arguments for a toll at the Gotthard prevail: the second tunnel should be financed by users, not the general public.

This article appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 15 March.