Catalonia's infamous N-II road off limits to heavy load lorries after 17-year controversy

Poor road conditions and a high rate of traffic accidents have led the Catalan Government to approve a strict circulation restriction for four axle lorries throughout 90 kilometers (56 miles) of the N-II, a road linking Madrid with Barcelona and the French border, which has only one lane per direction. Although the measure is of temporary character, it has outraged roadside shopkeepers and lorry drivers, but neighbors from towns close to the highly-frequented road totally support it. According to the Catalan Ministry for Public Works, now is the moment for the widening project of the road drawn up by the Spanish Government in 1995 to be restarted after years of delay due to a lack of funding in order to improve road conditions for the main entrance road to Spain from France.

The N-II road passing through the centre of Bàscara (by ACN)
The N-II road passing through the centre of Bàscara (by ACN) / Marina Presas

Marina Presas

June 17, 2013 04:40 PM

Barcelona (CNA).– Catalonia’s door to Europe is located at the French border, where the national road N-II comes to an end. Of all the “national roads” start in Madrid and the N-II road is well known for linking Madrid, Barcelona and France and being the main road used for Costa Brava lovers, tourists and international haulers. While for visitors and lorry drivers the N-II is the only free alternative for avoiding the pay highway, locals are aware of important flaws in the free highway to France: poor road conditions, huge traffic density and 211 deaths and 460 injured on the road since 2001. Local town halls and neighbor associations have been asking the Spanish Government – which owns the road – to widen it and build a second lane per direction in the stretch going through the Girona Province (north-eastern Catalonia). The high rate of accidents on heavy-traffic N-II in Girona has led the Catalan Government – which manages road traffic in Catalonia – to establish a new measure to lower the death rate while waiting for the Spanish Government to improve the road conditions: the banning of four axle lorries from circulating through 90 kilometers (56 miles) of the N-II road 24 hours per day, 365 days a year.

The Catalan Government’s decision came into force on the 19th April after seventeen years of disagreement about the road’s course of action between Spain’s Ministry for Public Works and the Catalan Executive. Although in 1995 the Spanish Ministry approved the widening of the N-II from a two-lane (one per direction) to a four-lane carriageway to improve the road conditions, road works remain to be executed. In addition, in those places where work was started, these projects were later stopped due to a lack of funding; leaving the road in worse conditions that it was before the project began.

The stretch of the road in the Girona Province is even more alarming as this is where more postponed works can be found. The national road N-II starts in Madrid and connects to Barcelona, where it continues to the French border crossing Catalonia from south to north to La Jonquera, the last important town in Catalonia before entering France.

An unprecedented governmental decision

Whilst banning circulation is not a new measure in traffic regulation, it is the first time a restriction extends to 365 days a year with an undetermined duration and over such a big area (90 kilometres). Despite the provisional character of the measure, in one month since the new rules began, 3,850 lorries per day have been forced to divert their route and use the pay highway, which is laid out parallel to the N-II.

Opposite points of view regarding the new measures have not taken long to emerge. Haulers criticise the Catalan Government for insufficient information and for going ahead with the new circulation rule without any consultation. The General Secretary of the Catalonia Haulers Association (AGTC), Adolfo Martínez, told CNA that “the edict clearly affects free trade and freedom of movement, considered as fundamental rights by the UE”. “That’s why we impugned the Catalan Government decision to Catalonia’s High Court of Justice; a total prohibition of a particular kind of lorry to circulate along a public road is not acceptable”, he added showing frustration.

Not only Catalan haulers have been wronged by the prohibition: haulers around Europe are also starting to feel its effects. Currently, the transportation of goods through France is no longer free of charge; therefore, each vehicle is forced to pay a highway fee to arrive to their correct destination. “An average of 600 euros is the amount companies which used to crisscross the N-II two or three times a week are paying monthly for each vehicle in order to take their products to the same place”, revealed the General Secretary of AGTC. Despite the fact that the Catalan Government has set discounts from 35% to 50% out of the total toll price for the affected vehicles, Adolfo Martínez stated that the measure “will produce important business losses in small and medium companies, which are tightening their belts to fight the effects of the economic crisis”.

When changing the N-II circulation rules, other complaints were lodged. Shop owners of roadside businesses complain to have lost their traditional clients, haulers from different nationalities who decided to rest in concrete areas and buy products from their stores, purchasing activities that became a past habit due to the compelled detour on the route.

Quality of living improvement

“Now you open the windows at night and barely hear any noise, we still can’t believe it”, confessed a woman sitting on a terrace in Bàscara after being asked about the effects of the measure established last April. In the northern Catalan town of Bàscara, located in the Girona province, the N-II passes through the middle of the town centre. That is why the Catalan Government’s decision has been celebrated among the neighbours, fed up of living with a deafening traffic noise and coping with a continuous trickle of friends and family deaths on the dangerous road.

However, the Bàscara neighbours have not been waiting with their arms folded for the problematic situation to be solved by the Spanish or the Catalan governments. The death of a local person on the Bàscara road on the 31st January was the last straw for the displaced citizens, who occupied the road and burned tires as a sign of protest. Since the initial rise up on January, outraged neighbours have organised themselves into a platform with a specific purpose: no more large lorries on their N-II stretch. Eugènia Carbó, spokeswoman of the Plataforma Prou Camions N-II (Stop Lorries Platform) explained that “that night all the neighbours from Bàscara met at the town hall and resolved to cut off the road circulation until the Catalan Government decided to take action and solve the situation”.

A 79-day fight

The popular initiative became strengthened when people from other towns next to the N-II decided to join Bàscara’s platform. “We were very few and needed to join efforts to succeed so we tried to get together people from other affected towns in order to allow our cause to grow”, Carbó said about the platform’s start. Bàscara, as the leader of the citizen revolt, said the most effective way to achieve their goal was to hinder traffic flow during a period of time every day. “We lived on the road for 79 days, we organised popular breakfasts in the middle of the road, kids painted the road with chalk and we played music so as to transform the road into a meeting-place for Bàscara neighbours”, the Prou Camions spokeswoman explained reviewing the different platform’s interventions. “The aim was to produce huge traffic jams to force vehicles to quit the N-II and use the pay highway”, she concluded.

The Catalan Government’s prohibition arrived on the eightieth day after the start of the Bàscara campaign, which surprised the neighbours, who saw a dream come true. The Catalan Minister for Public Works, Santi Vila, said he was “very satisfied with the results, although it is too soon to draw conclusions”. Five non fatal accidents have occurred throughout the first month without lorries on the N-II, a very low number compared to the 19 people dead on the road during the first term of 2013. The traffic accident rate “is becoming more bearable and coherent”, Vila declared.

A provisional solution

Santi Vila also remarked the temporary character of the measure. Throughout the first day with circulation restrictions, he remembered that “the N-II is one of the most dangerous roads in Spain so the Spanish Ministry for Public Works must restart the widening project of the road to improve its conditions as soon as possible”. According to the Catalan Minister for Public Works, the works may begin again in one year from now.

While the announcement of the road improvements was celebrated by all affected agents, not all of them agree with the road’s widening from two-lane to four-lane carriageways. The Prou Camions Platform considers that the purpose of the N-II is to become a secondary road used for covering short distances between towns. “The road works to fix the road are totally necessary but we are against the widening project”, declared Eugènia Carbó.

Haulers, on the other hand, are aware of the road dangers and in favour of the road works but against a total restriction of circulation. “There are other alternatives to solve the problem than just prohibiting a particular type of lorries to circulate through the N-II such as installing radar speed signs or reducing the road speed limit, measures used in other European countries like France, where the government constructed a lot of roundabouts, which impede drivers to circulate fast, to stimulate the use of the pay highway”, the Secretary of the Catalan Haulers Association Adolfo Martinez explained.  “In this way, a lot of vehicles will voluntarily decide to use the highway and the traffic density will decrease”, Martínez added.

The Spanish Government is responsible for improving road conditions whereas the Catalan administration has the duty to work out a solution to satisfy those affected by the circulation restriction. For now, after a month without lorries on the N-II, the measure has to be reviewed and the steps for a permanent solution drawn up.