January 8, 2019 / 5:55 PM / 5 months ago

French motorway operator Sanef tries to cushion toll hike

PARIS (Reuters) - French motorway operator Sanef said on Tuesday it was working on proposals to cushion the impact on drivers of a planned hike in toll charges, following a government request as nationwide protests over high living costs continue.

FILE PHOTO: A protester wearing a yellow vest, the symbol of a French drivers' protest against higher diesel fuel prices, holds a flag at the approach to the A2 Paris-Brussels Motorway, in Fontaine-Notre-Dame, France, December 4, 2018. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

From Feb. 1, French highway toll prices are expected to rise by 1.8 percent on average, after increasing by 1.55 percent in 2018. But with anti-government “yellow vests” protests showing no signs of abating in France, Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne urged motorway operators last week to avoid sending a negative signal to drivers.

Companies such as Sanef, owned by Spain’s Abertis, Vinci (SGEF.PA) and Eiffage (FOUG.PA) that run the French highways pay for road upgrades with tariff hikes, which are reviewed once a year and agreed with the government.

“Tariff hikes in February should not be challenged but the government is asking for solutions to cushion the impact on frequent users,” a Sanef spokeswoman said during a press lunch.

“In order to participate in the global effort on purchasing power... We will for instance offer new home-to-work subscription formulas,” she said.

Motorway operators were given 10 days to come up with proposals and are expected to meet with the Transport Minister next week.

The “yellow vests” - named after the fluorescent jackets French motorists must have in their cars - have blocked roads and roundabouts across France since mid-November, sometimes occupying highway tolls and setting a number on fire.

The demonstrations began as a protest against fuel tax increases, but have morphed into a wider backlash against the liberal economic policies of French President Emmanuel Macron.

Sanef has yet to estimate the damages it had incurred but larger operator Vinci has said destruction since the start of the protests will cost it “several tens of millions” of euros, not including lost revenue, as the protesters have allowed thousands of motorists onto the highways for free.

Vinci, however, dropped a plan to send invoices to motorists who drove through toll booths without paying and whose license plates were captured on cameras, following government criticism.

Reporting by Dominique Vidalon, Giles Guillaume; Editing by Sarah White and Susan Fenton

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