Interview with Belen Marcos, President, VINCI Highways, Executive Vice-President, VINCI Concessions

Interview with Belen Marcos, President, VINCI Highways, Executive Vice-President, VINCI Concessions


Greece’s logistics sector has recently seen a significant rise in its ranking on the World Bank’s supply chain survey from 42nd in 2018 to 23rd   last year. Key factors include a fast rise in delivery times for goods, heightened quality control and expanded transportation infrastructure. To start this interview, what are some of the major infrastructure projects that have led Greece to seeing such a large rise in ranking in its logistics sector? 

Greece has modernized its infrastructure network notably via the concession model. At VINCI we have been participating to this modernization, starting in the 1990s with the Metro of Athens, then the construction of the Rio-Antirrio bridge, our first Greek concession. We then became lead partner of the Athens-Patras highway concession (Olympia Odos) and joined the Maliako-Kleidi highway concession (Aegean Motorway). During the financial crisis we worked with the government to achieve the construction of these new highways. We were able to refinance and deliver them in 2017. Now in operations, they contribute to the performance of the country’s logistic sector.


How have macroeconomic challenges such as the pandemic, recent conflicts and supply shifts disrupted the market for logistics operators in Greece and Europe?

The recovery is real and consolidated. We have recovered our pre-Covid traffic on our three Greek highways. In 2023, we achieved a +10 % traffic increase, compared to 2022. Since the pandemic, we have even increased our investment in Greek highways. We support the governement’s vision of transport performance, road safety and environmental transition. Besides, we work well with our Greek partners from Avax, Ellaktor and Gek Terna.


Can you give our American readers a quick overview of VINCI Concessions, its major focus areas, and key subsidiaries? What kind of key services does the company provide to Europe and the global market?

VINCI Concessions is an infrastructure leader bringing expertise and private investments via mobility concessions in 23 countries. Its main business line is VINCI Airports, the first private airport operator in the world. VINCI Concessions operates highways outside France, through VINCI Highways, and is the concessionaire of the Tours-Bordeaux high speed line in France, through VINCI Railways.


Zooming into VINCI Highways, the company is particularly active in Europe, but 2023 highlighted by new international acquisitions such as majority interest in the Bogota-Girardot highway in Colombia and a first highway concession in Brazil. What are some of the major projects of VINCI Highway’s portfolio?

VINCI Highways is among the leading players, with a 3100 km network in 14 countries. We deliver on all road mobility needs, from designing, financing and building highways, to operations and tolling services through our US-based subsidiary ViaPlus.

Our global model adapts well to many geographies. We have been able to develop in South America, in Colombia, Peru and Brazil. In the US, which is a market where we want to grow, we recently signed an agreement for the acquisition of a section of Denver ring road in Colorado. We are also present in Canada, notably leading the concession of the iconic Confederation bridge. In Europe, which is our historical market, we have leading positions in Germany, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.

In Greece, we are the first international highway operator, with 540 km of highways representing a quarter of the country’s tolled traffic. Our whole expertise is implemented here, from construction to tolling solutions.


VINCI Concessions is playing a pivotal role in infrastructure development in Greece and has a long-term commitment. Can you give tell us about your involvement and flagship projects in Greece, and your latest new acquisitions and extensions in the country?

Our first concession, the Rio-Antirrio bridge, is the only direct link available 24/7 between the continent and the Peloponnese. It has many innovative features. We bring expertise and investment to maintain it at the best standards over time. In a few weeks from now, we will celebrate the 20th anniversary since the bridge opened to service. Recently, we increased our position in the concession, in conjunction with our partner Aktor.

The concession of Olympia Odos links Athens to Patras, the 4th largest city in Greece. It reduces journey time by an hour and has improved road safety. In 2022, we extended the concession to include the construction of a 75 km section to Pyrgos in the west of the Peloponnese peninsula. It will facilitate connections with ports and Ancient Olympia. Works are ongoing.  We hope to see additional extensions of this highway in the future.

Maliako-Kleidi highway is a key corridor for trade. Heavy vehicles represent more than 20 % of the traffic, notably due to the dynamic cargo traffic between the Balkans to the Port of Patras.


You mentioned that you are aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050. You have received the Airport Carbon Accreditation Level 5 at many of your airports, you are setting up EV charging stations in Germany and Europe. Is this something that you are looking at replicating in Greece, like setting up infrastructure for electric vehicles for the country?

Yes, and we have already advanced our environmental action plan in Greece. Since 2018 we have decreased by 78% our direct emissions on the Rio-Antirrio bridge and by 92% on Athens-Patras highway, notably thanks to the replacement of all our lighting with LEDs, and new solutions such as an adaptive lighting. Our new step is to implement photovoltaic panels along our highways, to produce our own electricity. We are currently building the largest highway solar farm in Greece.

Beyond our emissions, we bring solutions for drivers to switch to electric mobility. By the end of the year, we will have installed EV chargers in 100% of our service areas between Athens and Patras. On the Rio-Antirrio bridge, we are installing some chargers but the footprint is smaller, so we decided to  create an e-pass dedicated to EV drivers.

Greece is a country that is eager to implement low-carbon solutions. In many other countries, it is not that easy to develop solar panels along highways and connect them to the grid. In Greece we can do this. We are able to implement our environmental agenda here, supported by the country’s green ambition.


As a company VINCI is also striving to provide its drivers with innovative services such as “Water from the air” service in sections of the Athens-Patras highway. What are some of the most innovative services that you have introduced for your users in Greece?

Today, people expect highways not only to take them from A to B safely and quickly, but also to provide a pleasant experience along the way. “Water from Air” is a good illustration. It is appreciated by our drivers, while being environmentally performant. Actually, this service was awarded by the VINCI environment awards recently. We are also being attentive to the quality of our rest and service areas. In the next months, we will open a new service area dedicated to heavy vehicles with secure parking. And we bring new solutions to improve payment experience. In Greece, where there is an open toll system, everyone pays the same amount when they go through the tolls. With the hybrid tolling we introduced in 2020, you pay for the distance traveled instead of paying a fixed rate. We are the first operator in Greece to set that up and the Government is looking at implementing it in other areas.


How are you partnering with other companies or tech players to accelerate the digitization of the Greek highway infrastructure? How are these technologies changing the way highways function?

ViaPlus, our US-based subsidiary, develops innovations for free-flow tolling. It has experience with US transportation agencies that could fit well with the Greek needs. In the US, you have free-flow tolls in most of the highways. Vehicles can be identified by cameras and Artificial Intelligence and so do not have to stop and go. Free-flow increases fluidity and reduces the carbon emissions from the cars stopping at toll plazas. These are ideas we would really like to bring to Greece.


To what extent are we seeing a stronger appetite from the private sector for PPP projects in Greece? How can the Government trigger more interest from US and other foreign constructors in your opinion?

Greece was among the countries that brought the best projects to the market in Europe this year. This says a lot about how successfully the bar has been raised in attracting foreign investors. Construction, however, tends to be very local, so it is generally not that easy to attract foreign contractors. Through concessions, international investors are attracted, some of which are industrial entities that bring contractors with them.


Do you see any big projects or initiatives where Greece would welcome the participation of US companies and investors in particular?

It is the privatization of infrastructure that really attracts foreign investors. American investors can certainly be attracted by Greek infrastructure privatizations, both in transportation and energy. The fact that Greece has graduated to Investment Grade recently is certainly a positive advancement that will entice more investors to keep an eye on the country.


What are your current top personal priorities as Executive Vice-President of VINCI Concessions and President of VINCI Highways? What strategies are you implementing to overcome current challenges that we see today?

Our objective is to be the right partner for governments looking to develop mobility through concessions. All countries need modern transportation infrastructure and often the governments don’t have the funding to develop them. My conviction is that concessions can be efficient to develop these types of projects. In a concession, the management of the infrastructure is transferred from the beginning of construction all the way through to the hand-over to a private company, which will seek to optimize the life cycle of the project.

The concession scheme can accelerate development in infrastructure. This is what I have done my whole life, notably in the US. A toll road where the concessionaire assumes the traffic risk means there is an incentive to perform, to make sure the traffic is there, that the clients are well treated, that traffic moves fluidly and there is no congestion. The grantor, the users and the concessionaire are aligned in their interests.


What is your outlook for the logistics and infrastructure development networks in Greece in the future? Where do you see the country in the next five years in that regard?

Greece is growing, notably in the tourism and exports sectors, meaning the need for infrastructure will also probably keep growing. We will be considering with interest the opportunity to engage in new projects with Greece. We want to keep growing our long-term partnership with the country as investors, industrial partners and mobility operators, to assist in the development of the Greek infrastructure.


What would be your final message to the readers of USA Today?

The VINCI Group has been in Greece for more than 30 years. We are a partner with long-standing commitment and close ties to our grantor. We recently renewed our investment in the country, I think this illustrates well our confidence.