A car crosses the one-lane road which communicates the Villena AVE station with A-31, the Alicante-Madrid highway, in Villena, Spain
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Toll traffic is falling across southern Europe as economic austerity forces penny-pinching drivers off the roads.

Road charging companies in Spain, Portugal and Italy all reported drops in traffic in the six months until the end of June, as constrained household budgets saw more drivers stay at home, according to Moody’s, the credit rating agency.

“The archetypal trip is of the guy in Portugal with a house on the coast – but he is going there less,” said Andrew Blease, an associate managing director at Moody’s. “That is due to declining personal expenditure as austerity hits the pockets of consumers and feeds through into discretionary travel.”

The decline in car travel in particular has surprised some analysts, while trucks and heavy-goods vehicles have also been hit by dips in economic production.

“Heavy traffic is tied in much more closely to economic cycles than leisure driven car traffic,” said Mr Blease.

“Light vehicle travel has previously been regarded as resilient to economic downturns but it has been particularly susceptible to declines in consumer expenditure driven by severe government austerity measures.”

Traffic on France’s toll roads was flat for the period – albeit bolstered by British tourists and other motorists criss-crossing the country’s routes nationales to go to destinations such as Switzerland and Belgium.

Spain’s Abertis Infraestructuras saw the steepest vehicle volume fall of 9 per cent, while Portugal’s Brisa and Italy’s Atlantia reported 6.3 per cent and 2.6 per cent drops respectively.

While some drivers are cutting back on travel altogether, others are considering circuitous, but cheaper, routes that avoid toll motorways.

Nevertheless, there has been a resurgence in investors’ appetite for European infrastructure, which includes toll roads, particularly among insurance and pension funds.

Project finance of infrastructure projects has recovered since the doldrums of 2008 with year-to-date bond issuance at more than $2bn, compared with $1.2bn for the whole of 2012, according to figures from Dealogic.

Bolstered by support from Brussels, many European states hope infrastructure projects will provide the missing spark of economic growth

But most of the recent infrastructure investment has been concentrated in core European countries, with investors wary of road projects in Spain or Italy.

Since the global financial crisis in 2007, traffic on the largest toll roads in Italy have declined by a tenth, while car volumes on those roads in Portugal and Spain have fallen nearly a third, according to Moody’s.

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