Toll Insight spoke with Bill Halkias, Managing Director & CEO for the Attica Tollway Operations Authority.
1. Please tell us about Attica Tollway and tolling in Greece.
Attica Tollway (Attiki Odos in Greek) is a modern, 70-km toll highway. It constitutes the Ring Road of the greater metropolitan area of the city of Athens, and it forms the backbone of the road network of the entire region. It is an urban toll road, consisting mainly of three (3) lanes per direction. The road was constructed in stages, with the first section opening to traffic in March 2001. The full project was completed in June 2004, just in time for the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics.
The Tollway is operated by “Attikes Diadromes SA” (Attica Tollway Operations Authority), which was founded in 1999. The main function of the Operator is, among others, to maintain the continuous, uninterrupted, and smooth operation of the Tollway on a 24/7/365 basis, offering high quality services to its users. This goal is achieved through state-of-the-art traffic management with full CCTV video coverage and extensive patrolling, allowing fast detection, intervention and handling of incidents and accidents, while experienced crews undertake continuous maintenance activities of preventive and corrective nature.
The tolling regime mandates a flat and even payment applicable to all entries to the Tollway via 39 toll stations. The toll imposed is the same, no matter the distance driven, so that short distance trips are discouraged, avoiding congestion. The Attica Tollway Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) system was the first to be implemented in Greece, its penetration level today accounts for about 60%, offering various subscription schemes with discounts and accommodating the needs of the users. The Attica Tollway system has formed the basis for the National Interoperability scheme, applicable to the entire country.
Attica Tollway was developed on a concession basis and constitutes one of the largest Public Private Partnership (PPP) road projects in Europe. It belongs to the first generation of PPP projects developed in Greece during the 1990s, and it paved the way and laid the foundations for the execution of future successful concession contracts in Greece, covering the entire country by a modern network of 2,145 km of toll roads.
2. Tell us about your personal history as a transportation and tolling industry leader, in the past and currently.
I attended college at the National Technical University of Athens, and upon my graduation as a Civil Engineer, I moved to the U.S., where I got my Master’s degree from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Immediately after my graduation in 1984, I started my professional career. I first joined a surveying firm in West Caldwell, New Jersey. Ironically, my first project was the removal of the tolls from the Connecticut Turnpike. My second job was for a transportation firm in Tarrytown, New York, and in 1987, I joined three other partners to establish a traffic consulting firm in Glen Rock, New Jersey.
My tenure in the U.S. gave me “know how” and experience in transportation, and when I returned to Greece in 1994, I had no problem adjusting. I continued my involvement in the transportation consulting business, which was booming at the time, due to the allocation of European Union funds for the development of much needed transport infrastructure. In 1996, I was one of the very first professionals who joined the Attica Tollway corporate structure, which had just signed a concession agreement with the Greek government for developing a brand-new toll road in Athens. In 1999, I was appointed Managing Director and CEO of the Operation Company, which was established to undertake the operation and maintenance activities of the Tollway, holding this position ever since. I was fortunate enough to join various professional organizations of international nature, most notable being as member of the Freeway Operations Committee of TRB and then the Board of Directors of IBTTA. In 2014, I was elected President of HELLASTRON (the Greek association of toll roads), which led me to the Presidency of ASECAP (the Association of European toll roads), and now, most recently, to the Presidency of the International Road Federation, based in Geneva.
3. Most tolling agencies have been significantly impacted by COVID-19. Has this been the case in Greece and how have your responded?
COVID-19 impacted mobility all over the globe, and of course, Greece was not exempted. During the first wave of the pandemic, a lockdown was mandated from the end of March to the beginning of May 2020, which led to the reduction of traffic on all Greek toll roads by about 70% - 80% from the pre-COVID-19 levels. The restrictions were lifted for the summer, but with the second wave of the pandemic, a new lockdown was imposed at the beginning of November 2020, which is still in effect. The traffic reduction throughout the second lockdown has been about 50%.
From day one, a comprehensive crisis management plan was put in place and extensive consultations were made with colleagues from IBTTA and ASECAP in order exchange ideas and obtain information on how to deal with the pandemic. First and foremost, on the advice of our doctors and medical professionals, all necessary measures were implemented. Employees with medical conditions were allowed to stay home, teleworking was extended to all personnel who could work from home, the Customer Service Centers were closed and all of their activities were handled remotely. Satellite Traffic Management Centers and telephone customer support back offices were set up and put into operation. In terms of maintaining toll operations, rotation of personnel on a weekly basis was enacted. So far, we were able to maintain the offering of all essential services to our users.
4. You are a person that has exposure to both European and North American tolling. How would you compare and contrast our industry across the two continents?
I would say that there is little difference in the way in which toll roads are operated in Europe and North America. Toll agencies on both sides of the Atlantic have as their priority to offer a level of service to their customers worth the toll they are paying. The technological means used by toll road agencies in Europe and North America are very similar, as well as the operational methods.
If we do look for differences, I would say that one of these is the contractual way toll roads are developed, maintained and operated. In North America, toll roads are mostly run by public agencies, while in Europe, toll road operators are mostly private entities entering into concession agreements with the government. Another difference is related to toll interoperability. In the U.S., national interoperability is promoted by connecting the various regions through hubs. Europeans are more regulated, and interoperability is obligatory, mandated in all fronts (technology and operations), by requiring member states to offer a new service called European Electronic Toll Service (EETS), on the principle one device, one account and one invoice.
5. From your perspective, what are the risks and opportunities for the toll roads industry in the next 3-5 years?
The toll road industry has proven that it can adapt to challenges, and it has shown the capacity to identify risks as well as the opportunities ahead. In tolling, for example, we have adopted easily to the technological developments. We started with the conventional manual tolling; we deployed coin machines, then into ETC and now on to “open road” and satellite tolling. In the framework of the next 3-5 years, the challenge may come from the smartphone industry, which extends its reach on every type of payment. At the same time, there are ahead of us great opportunities offered by Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) developments and the developments on Connected and Automated Vehicles. In the longer-term, toll road operators have the opportunity to offer a platform to integrate the technological developments that the green movement and the climate change era are bringing.