Belgium eyes EU breakthrough on green road tolls


A proposal to charge trucks for the noise and pollution they cause is set to gather consensus from EU ministers today, paving the way for the introduction of green road tolls across Europe.

A compromise proposal on the Eurovignette directive, tabled by EU presidency holder Belgium, will be discussed today during a meeting of the bloc's 27 transport ministers in Luxembourg.

The Belgians hope to lay the ground for a political agreement on the proposal which would allow member states to charge trucks for the air pollution, noise and congestion they cause.

If successful, Belgium would score an important diplomatic victory on the directive, which has been blocked by EU member states ever since it was tabled by the European Commission in July 2008.

According to the compromise text, member states would have the option of charging lorries for the pollution they cause but would in no way be obliged to do so. Moreover, a derogation would be possible for less polluting trucks that meet Euro 5 and 6 emissions standards.

The European Commission, which tabled the initial proposal in 2008, is also very keen to see ministers reach a political agreement on the dossier tomorrow.

EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas believes it is "unacceptable" that member states are currently prohibited from charging for the environmental costs of road freight if they believe it is necessary, according to his spokeswoman Helen Kearns.

Transport operators anticipate 20-30% cost increases

Rémi Mayet, a Commission official in charge of the dossier, noted that there are "no substantial changes" between the EU executive's original proposal and the one tabled by the Belgian Presidency. Despite some differences in details, "the macroeconomic impacts would be the same," he said.

Today, the average toll paid on EU motorways ranges between 15 and 25 cents per kilometre. At 3 -4 cents per kilometre, the proposal would thus mean a 20-30% increase depending on the truck's emission class and its road usage, Mayet explained.

Moreover, he added that there would be "no price impact on end products" transported on EU roads, explaining that the proposal was about giving transport operators and drivers "an incentive to change their driving behaviour".

According to the Commission, the directive would encourage freight operators to opt for cleaner vehicles, reduce the number of empty lorries on the roads and avoid driving at peak hours.

Congestion no longer considered as external cost

One of the most controversial issues has been whether to charge trucks for the congestion they cause, as most agreed that heavy goods vehicles are not the only source of congestion on European roads.

While the Commission proposal treated congestion as part of the cost, the Belgian compromise wants to treat it as part of existing infrastructure costs, an option that seems to garner support from a majority of member states in the Council.

The Belgian Presidency's compromise on congestion centres on ensuring that variable tolls for peak periods will have to remain "revenue neutral". For example, member states would be allowed to charge significantly higher rates during rush hour but would accordingly have to charge lower rates in the middle of the night, when the roads are empty.

This would impose no additional burden if freight companies manage to avoid peak hours, which ministers envisage limiting to six per day.

All main roads concerned

The Belgian proposal would also double the number of roads covered by the current Eurovignette directive by including all the main roads and motorway networks used by international transport companies. This would bring the number of kilometres of "environmentally chargeable" tolled roads to 30,000. 

This is a bit less than the Commission's initial proposal, which would have included all roads, but still represents a "substantial extension" of the scope of the current directive, Mayet said.

The current Eurovignette directive, adopted in 2006, only covers roads in the trans-European transport network (TEN-T), which covers some 15,000 kilometres of tolled roads.

No earmarking of revenue

The Belgian Presidency has also scrapped a Commission proposal that would have obliged member states to earmark the extra revenue generated by the tolls to support initiatives on greening the transport system.

Instead, the presidency proposes having a non-binding recommendation asking member states to allocate 50% of the revenue to greening road transport, with a yearly reporting obligation.

Electronic tolls only

Today, eleven member states, including France and Germany, apply distance-based charging based on an electronic tolling system. Two others, Hungary and Poland, are planning to install similar electronic tolling schemes.

As the EU proposal concerns only electronic tolls, member states that do not have such systems in place will not be able to apply green road charges.

Mayet stressed that the current Eurovignette directive, while relatively cheap to implement, will be replaced in the long run by more intelligent systems, such as electronic tolls. The current directive is a mere transitional system, which is not proportional to the use of the infrastructure, he added.

A 2004 EU directive lays down the conditions for the interoperability of electronic road toll systems across the EU. An October 2009 Commission decision on the technical specifications of the European Electronic Toll Service (EETS) obliges member states to ensure interoperability just in time for the revised green road charges directive to enter into force.

Marc Billiet from the International Road Transport Union (IRU), a trade group representing the road freight transport industry, said member states have not taken the time to look at what the transport sector already pays in form of taxes, duties and charge, to cover its environmental costs.

Moreover, he says the compromise proposal on the table has “important flaws” regarding congestion and earmarking of the revenue. "Belgium has removed all reference to examining congestion charging for all road users," he said, stressing that trucks only count for 10% of the transport.

As regards earmarking, he said the "Council has completely abandoned the original philosophy of the revision proposal," which was to help reduce external costs of road transport through redirecting money towards improving the infrastructure, he said.

Now, the ministers will simply agree on a new tax for road transport with no guarantees that anyone will do anything truly useful for greening transport with the new money, he regretted.  

The European Association for Forwarding, Transport, Logistic and Customs Services (CLECAT), also stressed that "the road transport sector can rightfully claim it is already paying taxes and charges that substantially manage to completely internalise its externalities".

CLECAT said its members "are alarmed that the Council may conclude a political agreement slashing the only positive aspect of the proposal, i.e. the earmarking principle, without coming to any reasonable solution for the issue of congestion, which would be ignored as if it did not exist!"

Stefan Back, the chairman of the CLECAT Road Transport Institute said that "the political debate should focus on a more comprehensive approach, intended to address externalities in all modes of transport with a comprehensive strategy."

CLECAT calls on the ministers to reject the current Eurovignette proposal and ask the Commission to come up with a comprehensive strategy for the internalisation of external costs in all transport modes, with a view to mitigating the externalities as its main objective.

In July 2008, the European Commission proposed a revision of the Eurovignette Directive, which allows EU member states to charge trucks to offset pollution costs.

The proposal is part of the Commission's strategy for internalising the external costs of transport, a train of initiatives intended to make transport more environmentally friendly by extending the "user pays" principle to the "polluter pays" principle.

The current directive states that toll rates should not exceed the cost of maintaining and building the infrastructure, and prohibits the recovery of other "external costs" such as air pollution and noise.

The aim of the revision is to develop a transport pricing system to cover these "negative environmental impacts" of road freight.

While the proposal has been hailed by environmental NGOs, member states remain divided over the issue and industry stakeholders have joined forces to denounce the "incorrect" assumption that merely increasing costs will lead to more sustainable transport.

The last compromise proposal for the revised directive, tabled by the Czech EU Presidency in 2009, failed to convince the member states. Many of them argue that a recession is not the right time to impose extra costs on the transport sector.

  • 15 Oct. 2010: Transport Council expected to reach political agreement on the dossier.

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