After Eurovignette, EU asks: ‘For whom the road tolls?’
SPECIAL REPORT/ Seven years after the 'Eurovignette' directive, the European Commission is planning to permanently shift its method for measuring road pricing away from the time that a vehicle has spent on a motorway and towards the distance it has covered, according to a draft directive proposal seen by EurActiv.
Time-based road charging – also known as vignettes or Eurovignettes – for heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) was enabled by a 2006 EU directive. But in the new directive it is dubbed a “suboptimal tool” for applying the ‘user pays’ and ‘polluter pays’ principles which underwrite EU transport legislation.
The costs of the system, its enforcement, compliance obligations, and the administrative burden for hauliers are seen by Brussels as “disproportionate compared to the returns”.
“Vignettes should therefore be gradually replaced by distance-based charges which are fairer and more efficient,” the draft says. The changeover is planned for 1 January 2019.
“Eurovignette doesn’t work to the level we want,” Keir Fitch, the deputy head of cabinet for European Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas told EurActiv. “We need a [new] directive.”
In a measure that will please the road transport industry but prove controversial with several EU states, a substantial share – “at least 70%” – of the monies raised from such charges should be earmarked for reinvestment in roads and road transport and infrastructure, the paper says.
But hauliers may be less happy with the introduction of “mandatory external-cost charges” to compel the industry to ‘internalise’ the estimated €144 billion a year infrastructure, health and pollution-related costs of HGVs.
“The external-cost charges are more effective for internalising the external costs of air and noise pollution, and are easier to apply,” the draft says. Multipliers would apply for ‘mega-trucks’ (or ‘European Modular Systems’), and for travel across mountain passes.
The law would also allow congestion charges to be levied on top of infrastructure charges, so long as they apply “on a transparent and proportionate basis to heavy goods vehicles, light commercial vehicles and cars”. The city caps would include a ‘multiplier’ factor for charging HGVs of 2.9.
The future of infrastructure funding
“With public budgets increasingly constrained, we are convinced that the future of infrastructure funding lies in charging the users for the use of the road - just as trains pay track access charges and planes pay airport charges,” Kallas told the International Road Transport Union (IRU) conference in Vilnius on 16 September.
Kallas added that EU action on congestion would follow the ‘user pays' principle. “Let there be no doubt,” he said. “If we are not to lose the benefit of a well-functioning infrastructure, we must act soon to end years of chronic underinvestment.”
Other measures in the draft directive would simplify EU states’ notification and reporting requirements, introduce new values for infrastructure and external costs and ensure greater transparency and non-discriminatory rules for tolling schemes.
The proposals received a qualified welcome from Jos Dings, the director of Transport and Environment, a green think tank.
“It is encouraging that the Commission's proposal aims at loosening up on issues like which type of road can be covered, but its renewed insistence on spending the money on roads is as unhelpful as it is pointless,” he told EurActiv in emailed comments. “National finance ministers, not the European Commission, decide on the best use of public resources.”
The new proposals would also make it easier and quicker for governments to introduce and adapt toll roads.
It further specifies that all motorways, expressways and major routes used by trucks should be included in tolls - from which governments would have to opt out - rather than opting-in to such schemes, as happens at present.
Road transport industry representatives told EurActiv that they supported the inclusion of passenger cars in the congestion charge proposals. “All [road] users should be included said Michael Nielsen, the IRU’s general delegate to the EU, at the IRU conference. “We think we’re already paying for congestion because our trucks are being blocked. This externality is a cost for us.”
Nielsen backed the “earmarking” of charges levied on road use to maintain and build infrastructure, warning that his industry would effectively be “cross-subsidising” air and rail transport if toll revenues leaked away from the hauliers sector.
“If the Commission is making a revision [of the directive], it is crucial that money is earmarked to ensure that funds for infrastructure are made available from the money they collect,” he said.
Some EU states may be irked by any revision to the Eurovignette directive. The British government is believed to be in the process of introducing a Vignette system following the EU’s last revision of the directive, just two years ago.
But the EU and environmental groups contend that a better model is needed than the current patchwork of national charging systems.
“Smart road tolls make trucks pay for their pollution instead of citizens, and give them incentives to clean up and become more efficient,” Dings said. “But the EU law has become a deterrent for member states to introduce such tolls, instead of a stimulus.”
By laying down common rules on how EU states could charge heavy goods vehicles for using the road network, the 2006 'Eurovignette' directive aimed to ensure road usage better reflects its true impact on society.
To this end it introduced a ‘user pays’ and a ‘polluter pays’ principle. The directive consciously tried to engineer a shift freight away from roads onto other less-polluting modes of transport such as rail and waterways.
- 1 Jan. 2019: Planned switch from vignettes to distance-based charges