While driving back and forth across the midsection of France over the last 2 ½ months, I have made some observations regarding their roads. I have yet to see (or feel) a single pothole in the roads on which I’ve driven. I try to drive their A routes (like our interstate highway system) when I am driving long distances.
Most of the A routes are toll roads, and they are extraordinarily smooth and well maintained. I was told by my neighbor that the A routes are privatized, hence the tolls. What the tolls amount to are user fees, so those who actually are using the roads are the ones who ultimately pay for their upkeep. It definitely seems to be working, because the roads are very well maintained, with excellent rest areas and service areas (for fuel and food) about every 5 to 10 kilometers. While a few of the service areas look like a traditional truck stop in the US (but with MUCH better food), most will also have a sit down restaurant available without getting off the A route. And service is available 24/7. I think in part this is because when you get off the A route, you will be going through very small towns and villages that either don’t have services, or if there is a gas station or café, they close very early (7 PM), so travelers would be hard pressed to find food or fuel in the small towns at night.
These food and fuel areas are about 25 to 30 kilometers apart. In between will be 2 or 3 rest areas with space for big rig trucks to park as well as restrooms, and usually a playground or walking paths. There always are a number of vehicles in these rest areas, taking advantage of the opportunity to have a picnic, or let children and pets run and get some exercise. Perhaps the availability of the rest areas accounts for the fact that there seems to be very few accidents on these roads. This is in spite of the fact that the speed limit is 130 km/hr (approximately 80 mph). Trucks are limited to a maximum speed of 90 km/hr and must stay in the far right lane. There are then 2 other lanes for passing, and drivers are supposed to stay in the right lane except for passing. Before I figured that out, I got dirty looks for driving in the middle lane!
The lesser highways are also well maintained. Even the small farm lanes are paved and smooth. When driving through the country side and small towns, the roads are very narrow in many places. However, for the most part I have found drivers to be courteous – even when the dumb blonde foreigner ends up going the wrong way down a one-way street. (My license plate is hot pink, and everyone else’s is white. I figure that is to warn the locals that I don’t know where I’m going!)
It seems to me that somehow France has figured out how to pay for maintaining their roads for the long term. I would definitely be in favor of instituting a toll road system for our interstates in the US based upon how well it works here. Fuel is much more expensive here (about $5/gal since diesel is 1.25 euro/liter and there are about 4 liters to a gallon.) And the tolls are not cheap. On a trip from my house to the Normandy beaches, we paid about 30 euros in tolls each direction. However, the reduced stress from potholes has to reduce maintenance costs on cars, so it probably evens out. So, when I return to the US, I think I will be proactive, and write a letter to my congressman about toll roads as a solution to the interstate highway maintenance problem!