EU Factors Environmental Impact into New Road Charges

BRUSSELS, Belgium, July 28, 2003 (ENS) - The European Commission has proposed changing EU road infrastructure charging rules so that authorities can link the price of freight transport use to factors including environmental impacts.

EU Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio said the revision would also help solve a crisis currently facing road transit through Austria. The proposals follow a draft law on road tolling interoperability earlier this year.

From the start of 2005, the EU executive says, there should be a single European charging service ensuring interoperability of payment systems for all vehicles over 3.5 metric tons or carrying 10 or more people. From 2010, these requirements would be extended to passenger cars and all other classes of vehicles.

All tolling systems would be covered by the interoperability requirement, whether on roads, bridges, tunnels or ferries that carry vehicles. The law's premise is that there should be a single contract per user and a single box per vehicle. Starting from service agreements between toll operators, the eventual aim is to achieve technical harmonization.

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Truck in the United Kingdom (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
Published last week, the Commission plans would overhaul a law known as the 1999 Eurovignette Directive, which sets ground rules and minimum charges for heavy goods transport on major roads across the European Union. The key change is a new flexibility for authorities to vary charges according to engine emissions, congestion levels, time of day and sensitivity of the surrounding environment.

Road haulage industry groups have been guarded in their response. The UK's freight transport association said the plan was a "welcome recognition of a need for a like-for-like, transparent charging process across the whole internal market," but challenged what it complained is a Commission assumption that tolls are a solution to congestion.

The nongovernmental organization European Federation for Transport and Environment rejected the plan unequivocally, despite having long urged a greener EU infrastructure pricing policy. Board member Magnus Nilsson complained it would not compel member states to vary charges according to impact and that any increased revenues would be tied to infrastructure maintenance. The proposals were "against all economic and environmental logic," Nilsson said.

Transport Commissioner de Palacio said the plan responded to an emerging "regulatory mosaic" in which countries such as Germany, Austria, France and the UK had already decided to introduce more direct road pricing schemes such as kilometer charges.

The new road infrastructure charging rules should not increase overall transport charges, she said, but would mean a shift in the structure of payments away from taxpayers and onto actual road users.

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A bus navigates Austria's winding Alpine roads. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
Another proposed change would to drop the threshold for vehicles covered by the charging rules from 12 metric tons under the Eurovignette Directive to 3.5 tons. The new infrastructure charging rules would apply only to roads forming part of the Trans-European Network, though member states could extend it to national roads running alongside these.

Another important development is the option of increasing charges by up to 25 percent in "particularly sensitive regions" such as the Alps, with the extra revenue then available for cross-financing of other transport infrastructure such as rail.

Commissioner de Palacio said this could be a way out of the "delicate debate" and "entrenched positions" that had halted progress on resolving the future of the Austrian ecopoints system. Last week the Commission announced it was taking Vienna to court in a bid to prevent it imposing freight restrictions on the Inntal motorway from August 1.

In a related development, the Commission has announced an investigation into Germany's imminent kilometer charging regime for trucks after fierce opposition by EU hauliers. Though it does not question the fundamentals of the plan, the Commission wants the September introduction date delayed while it decides whether a system of rebates breaks EU state aid rules.

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{Published in cooperation with ENDS Environment Daily, Europe's choice for environmental news. Environmental Data Services Ltd, London. Email: envdaily@ends.co.uk}