It’s almost a French tradition: every February 1, the price of motorway tolls increases and the year 2022 is no exception. A way for motorway concession companies (SCA) to catch up with inflation and amortize investment work. In 2020, toll receipts represented 97.3% of SCA revenues, according to the report of the Transport Regulatory Authority.
But this new increase a few weeks before the presidential election does not pass. And it is an opportunity for some candidates to put forward their proposal to (re)nationalize the highways, such as François Asselineau (Republican People’s Union).
“This renationalization will put an end to the scandalous rent that the State has sold off at a low price to private dealers held by American pension funds”, denounces the candidate in a tweet on Tuesday. Adding: “The profits they generate on OUR tolls are ultimately used to pay part of the pensions of American employees! »
We wanted to verify this assertion.
Minimal shareholding in pension funds
The privatization of the motorways took place in 2006. The state now operates just over 2,000 km. The remaining 9,000 kilometers of motorways are operated by motorway concession companies (SCA). However, the State remains the owner. It has only entrusted its operation via concessions for a variable period, from 25 to 30 years on average.
In France, there are 17 SCAs owned by four main entities: Vinci (ASF, Cofiroute, Escota, Arcour), Eiffage (APRR, Area, A’liénor, Adelac, CEVM), Sanef (Sanef, SAPN) and the State (ATMB, SFTRF). According to the 2020 report of the Transport Regulatory Authority, the other SCAs are Atlanteans, Alis, Alicorne and Albea.
We had found traces of American pension funds in the shareholders of these companies, but they are very much in the minority. For Vinci for example, The Vanguard Group owns 2.20% actions and BlackRock Fund Advisors 1.45%. In total, 23.3% of institutional investors are in North America and are far from all pension funds. For Eiffage, of which 19% of the capital is held by employees, the American shareholder funds are as follows: The Vanguard Group (1.98%), Capital Research & Management Co (1.39%), BlackRock Fund Advisors (1.36% ), Columbia Management Investment Advisers LLC (1.35%), Dimensional Fund Advisors LP (0.95%).
For Sanef, the result is roughly similar. The company is 100% owned by the Spanish group Abertis. It is 50% owned by the Italian Atlantia (BlackRock Fund Advisors owns 1.78% of the shares and The Vanguard Group 1.55%), at 30% by ACS (The Vanguard Group 1.92% and Capital Research & Management Co 1.06%) and finally 20% by the German High Low (Blackrock 0,74%, The Vanguard Group 0,73% et Invesco Advisers 0,48%).
In conclusion, it is greatly exaggerated to say that private motorway concessionaires are owned by American pension funds.
Is renationalization possible?
For François Asselineau, in addition to cutting off pension funds, the (re)nationalization of highways will restore purchasing power to the French. A proposal also present in the program of Marine Le Pen (RN) and Fabien Roussel (PCF). But is it possible?
Technically yes, but if this measure had to be carried out now, it would be extremely expensive for the State. Motorway concessions are indeed valid until 2031 for the closest (Sanef) and run up to 2070 for some (Arcour, A19). Nationalizing them would mean paying compensation to the SCAs, which in the last 15 years alone have made 20 billion euros of investment and development work.
The Minister of the Economy estimated the cost of such a measure at “40 billion euros” minimum. In May 2021, the Senate commission of inquiry on highway concessions even quantified this nationalization to 50 billion euros. Arriving at a simple conclusion: renationalizing today would cost far too much, but the state must prepare for the end of the concessions. Because he will not necessarily recover them for free if the investments of the SCAs are not amortized…
The criticism of the price increase
The criticism of the increase in prices by the candidates is however justified in view of the good results of the SCAs. In 2020, their turnover stood at 8.9 billion euros, down 17.5% due to the health crisis. “At the same time, operating expenses fell by 1.0%”, financial expenses by 9.3% and that of corporate tax by 39%, specifies the Transport Regulatory Authority in its report (ART). The 2020 net income of SCAs thus amounted to 2.6 billion euros, despite a 24.5% drop compared to 2019.
2.4 billion euros: the amount of dividends paid by SCAs in 2020 (compared to 3.1 billion in 2019).
In June 2017, faced with the significant increases in toll prices, the ART judged that “the planned toll price increases exceed the fair level that it would be legitimate to make users bear”.