Is the A69 Toulouse-Castres justified? Understand the debate on this highway project

While the president, Emmanuel Macron, presents the ecological planning agenda on Monday September 25, the executive sees a thorny environmental issue resurface: that of the construction of highway 69 (A69). Construction work on this highway, which will link Toulouse to Castres, was launched in the spring, despite several appeals from environmental associations.

Read also: Article reserved for our subscribers Thomas Brail, on hunger strike against the A69, was dislodged by the police from the tree where he was perched

Sunday morning, Thomas Brail, an activist who was on hunger strike in front of the Ministry of the Environment, was dislodged by the police, in what the entourage of the Minister of Transport, Clément Beaune, presented as a “protective intervention” against one “major danger for [sa] health “. The 48-year-old man, founder of the National Tree Surveillance Group (GNSA) and member of the La Voie Est Libre collective, met the minister on September 19, who confirmed the continuation of the project, promising to “hugely reduce the environmental footprint of the project”. The Way is Free is organizing a press conference at the National Assembly on Monday to present a “alternative project” to the A69.

The original idea, in 1994, was to widen the national road, the N 126, which already largely provides the Toulouse-Castres connection, to two lanes. But, in 2010, the public authorities opted for a concessioned, private, toll motorway: the A69. The concession agreement, published in April 2022gives the Atosca company the mission to build and operate this 53-kilometer highway for fifty-five years, which is scheduled to be put into service in 2025. The cost is estimated at 450 million euros, including 23 million in money audience.

Locally, the project is controversial: is it a “21st highwaye century, virtuous » or one “symbol of what must no longer be done” ? An update on the main arguments developed.

Read also: Toulouse-Castres motorway: the demonstration in Tarn against this contested project took place peacefully

A highway to open up Castres?

“This highway is vital” to restore attractiveness to the south of Tarn, where 200,000 inhabitants live, half of whom live in the Castres-Mazamet basin, according to Christophe Ramond, socialist president of the department. Like other local elected officials, he relies on a survey by the Tarn Chamber of Commerce and Industry, according to which business creations increased more between 2013 and 2023 near Albi, a town linked to Toulouse by the highway, only near Castres.

Yet the public inquiry report on the A69 ensures that“no concrete demonstration [d’un impact économique favorable] is not presented nor any figures evaluated” in the project. Atosca has certainly announced around a thousand jobs, but only at the time of the work.

Researchers from the Champollion National University Institute, in Albi, recently denounced the employment argument by ensuring that “Research in regional planning has never demonstrated that the creation of a transport infrastructure was automatically synonymous with social and economic development for the territories concerned”. Maxime Genevrier, professor of urban planning associated with Lettres Sorbonne University, explained to France 3 that the creation of this highway would “generate developments, certainly, but outside city centers” and that Castres would become “more than today a suburban town in the Toulouse region”.

Read also: Article reserved for our subscribers After Sainte-Soline, the rally against the Castres-Toulouse motorway project under close surveillance

Up to thirty-five minutes less travel time?

On his siteAtosca ensures that journeys between Toulouse and Castres will be “decreased from twenty-five minutes (during off-peak hours) to thirty-five minutes (during peak hours)”. But this theoretical time saving is based on very optimistic assumptions.

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In the impact study, the company uses an average speed of 128 km/h, saying it is modeled on that of the A68 between Toulouse and Albi. But it takes into account neither possible slowdowns nor the weather (110 km/h in the event of rain). For comparison, the National Interministerial Observatory for Road Safety (ONISR) estimated the average speed on motorways at 118 km/h in 2021.

By taking only the 53 kilometers of the future highway, the theoretical time saving is closer to twenty minutes, according to the various calculations that we have been able to carry out. To achieve a gain of thirty-five minutes, the company takes into account ten minutes of slowdown at the level of the activity zone of the entrance to Castres on the current N 126 without considering that the arrival in Castres by the future highway could also be slowed down, or these new lanes could be congested at the entrance to Toulouse.

One thing is certain: vehicles that do not want to take the motorway will lose twelve minutes on the Toulouse-Castres journey, because the Soual and Puylaurens bypasses, built in the 2000s with public money, will become chargeable. To maintain the current travel time, you will have to take the A69 for 11 kilometers, paying 1.40 euros.

Too little traffic for a highway?

For years, opponents of the project have claimed that a motorway is not necessary, because the current N 126 is not congested. L’impact study evokes traffic “relatively stable on its central part”with an average of 8,000 light vehicles and 700 heavy goods vehicles each day, and a little denser “on the outskirts of Castres with around 15,000 light vehicles and 1,000 heavy goods vehicles”. This remains a modest flow compared to other nearby towns: Lourdes and its 20,798 vehicles or Albi with its 44,729 passages on the ring road, according to the traffic census in 2020.

Atosca is counting on 10,300 vehicles per day once the A69 comes into service, then on 12,000 in 2045, which remains quite low for a motorway. “The primary objective of this is to make journeys safer, to provide comfort and to save time”retorts the general director of Atosca, Martial Gerlinger, questioned by The world. Traffic on the N 126 would be in sharp decline with between 2,000 and 4,000 vehicles per day, according to these projections. Unless the creation of a new axis results in a induced trafficby increasing the total number of users.

Alternatives not sufficiently considered?

Opponents of the project believe that the existing national road could have been redeveloped. In December 2016, fifteen communities (Teulat, Lacroisille, Appelle, etc.) carried out a preliminary study considering several changes to the N 126, such as the creation of a third lane in Verfeil (Haute-Garonne), the removal of traffic light intersections and the creation of a buried passage at Saïx (Tarn). The budget was estimated at 179 million euros, half as much as the current project. But it would have been covered by public finances, whereas the A69 will be financed mainly by the private sector.

According to the public inquiry, “the proof that no road alternative was better has not really been provided”. For the members of this independent commission, the choice of the highway “is only really justified by the insufficient will of the State and local authorities to raise the financing necessary for the complete development of the No. 126yet decided and committed from 1994 to 2007”.

Another option mentioned, the strengthening of the rail link between Toulouse and Castres (an hour and ten minutes journey), was swept aside in the last prefectural decree authorizing the work.

The environmental issue taken into account in the construction site?

“This file is in contradiction with national commitments in the fight against climate change, the objective of zero net artificialization and zero net loss of biodiversity”also concluded the National Nature Conservation Councilby issuing an unfavorable opinion in September 2022. A month later, the Environmental Authority also issued an unfavorable opinion, judging the project “anachronistic in view of the current challenges and ambitions of sobriety”. But these two opinions were only advisory.

Read also: Article reserved for our subscribers Mobilization against the A69 motorway project, deemed “anachronistic” by the environmental authority

Beyond increases in CO emissions2 linked to the increase in speed and traffic, 343 hectares of high-yielding agricultural land and natural land will be artificialized by the project. Atosca calculates differently, distinguishing between 110 artificialized hectares, corresponding to the asphalt roadway, and the rest of the land area of ​​the motorway (embankments, merlons, shoulders and others), qualified as “green outbuildings”. Ecological corridors should be created there, but these areas will have lost their agricultural use.

Read the decryption: Article reserved for our subscribers Does lowering speed to 110 km/h on motorways save CO₂?

Atosca has planned so-called “ERC” measures (avoid, reduce, compensate) aimed at recreating destroyed environments elsewhere on an almost equivalent surface area. But the public inquiry report recalls that they will not be able to compensate “heavy and definitive consequences” of the project, such as the loss of agricultural land, the landscape and noise impact and the separation of the territory.

“We are at the latest standard of what is done on motorways today”defends the boss of Atosca, who assures to replant five trees for each tree “impacted” by the construction site. The company assumes the felling of two hundred trees, but the figure is contested by The Way is Clear. “The concessionaire refers only to aligned trees protected by the environmental codesays Thomas Digard, member of the collective. Atosca forgets to mention the trees on properties impacted by the A69, those planted along streams and fields and those affected by the clearing authorization of the prefectural decree. We would be at a thousand trees felled. »

“A highway for the rich” ?

The collective The Way is Free denounces “a highway for the rich”, explaining that a round trip between Castres and Toulouse will cost 17 euros. For a thermal car, you will have to pay 6.77 euros for Castres-Verfeil on the A69, to which is added 1.70 euros for the A68 between Verfeil and Toulouse. Or 8.47 euros one way. The future A69 reaches a price of 12.77 cents per kilometer, which places it in the category of most expensive motorways in France.

The general director of Atosca, Martial Gerlinger, specifies that electric vehicles will have a 20% reduction. For home-work-home users, the subscription should reduce the cost to 11.52 euros per working day between Castres and Toulouse, or around 230 euros per month. The public inquiry report had expressed reservations due to the high toll cost compared to other journeys to Toulouse: 4.30 euros from Castelnaudary (Aude) in 2022 or 5.70 euros from Pamiers (Ariège).

“The fact that the user bears almost all of the financing of the project is unfair”writes the commission of inquiry, which recommended lowering the price of the A69 toll by at least a third, by making the effort bear “by the State and communities”. This reservation was, however, considered irrelevant in the prefectural decree which launched the work.

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