Urban mobility – a ‘financial responsibility’ for member states

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Simply transposing EU environment and transport rules into national law is not enough and governments must take care to free up the money necessary for the implementation of EU objectives, insists Austrian MEP Reinhard Rack, rapporteur on the Commission’s Green Paper on urban mobility.

Click here to read a shorter version of this interview

In your view, what are the key findings in the Commission’s Green Paper on urban transport? 

In principle, I think it was a good idea for the Commission to take up this particular issue. It’s one where very many citizens are involved in one way or another, and it’s one where the European Union, as a lawmaker, has actually had quite a lot of legal interactions, without really having a stringent and cogent concept of what to achieve. We have legislation on clean air, on noise and on lots of other things, all pertaining to the area of urban mobility, but there’s no integrated concept for what the European involvement as such should be and of where Europe really wants to go. 

So, in principle, I and most of the organisations I have been in contact with so far appreciate the process. But, my main objective and the major point I will make as rapporteur will be to get clear answers on exactly what level of EU involvement we want, on the sort of European vision we want to achieve as an end result, and on how that reflects with the wishes and the needs of the local and regional institutions. 

So, basically; framework, objectives and interaction will be what I focus the discussions on in Parliament. 

What role do you see the Commission playing and how does that fit in with the principle of subsidiarity, which leaves decisions on urban mobility up to local authorities? 

Number one, I have the feeling there is no Commission role as yet. There has been a more or less active role on the part of the various Commission departments – DG Environment, DG Energy, DG Transport, etc. – they have all taken their small bits and pieces of competences and done something about it, more or less. But again, there is not really an integrated position reflecting the position of the Council and, therefore, there is no overall initiative towards a certain type of urban mobility scheme. 

The subsidiarity question is of course part of the game, but surprisingly enough, my discussions with many local authorities have revealed that cities don’t really mind. To some extent, cities even hope that the EU can help them vis-à-vis their national and regional governments. 

They are in a very complicated situation. Practically all of them have the same problems – congestion, old infrastructure, not enough money to invest in new infrastructure and, in some cases, not even enough political and legal clout to build new infrastructure – because we all know that citizens are all for the free flow of transport but they are all against building new roads, so it’s not so easy. 

So in reality, I think cities would be interested in a useful cooperation with the EU instances but the question is: How do we organise the subsidiarity question? 

European lawmaking should not attempt to regulate local transport problems in city X, Y or Z, but instead, they should do it in a different way, by offering a package of potential, standardised, measures that would enable the cities to choose the most suitable approach for them while following, to some extent European rules, that make it recognisable for each and every citizen. 

For example, with the congestion charge, the EU should provide guidelines to avoid a situation where we would have 27 different schemes, 27 different timescales, 27 different accessibility rules, etc. It should offer a model, with some variants, that cities can take but that they are not obliged to take. The same with green zones or low-emission zones, parking regulations, public transport and modal shift questions: It should be like a running sushi bar: Europe should offer the dishes and the cities can then take it or leave it. 

But at least, in this way, citizens could expect some kind of conformity throughout Europe. When they see a sign saying “low-emission zone” or “congestion charge”, they would know what it meant and what they have to do. 

You raised the issue of financing and the lack of money available for infrastructure. Can the EU do anything about this? 

Basically, we will present three or four, or maybe more, options. 

Number one, the Commission should make sure that where it has money, for example with its regional and cohesion funds, it should give preference to preferable local transport situations. So cities that do want to improve their infrastructure should be able to do this as part of the cohesion game. 

We do already have that; for instance, we have the Marco Polo programme, with money for more sustainable transport, more modal shift, etc. So wherever the Commission has European money, it should put it into context with the needs of infrastructure for urban mobility – but again, within a concept that ensures a certain coherence between different actions.

Secondly, the Commission could and should also try to find new ways of funding. I’m rather sceptical of PPPs (public-private partnerships). We’ve been talking about them for the past 10-15 years, but raising very little money along these lines – the most spectacular example of failure being of course Galileo. But the European Investment Bank has quite a lot of money. To some extent it is even waiting for customers. Again, pre-formed packages could provide for certain infrastructural needs. 

And thirdly and, I think, most importantly, we formulated a new idea – it’s a little bit complicated though because the competency and subsidiarity games are involved there. The idea is that, whenever European law requires a certain legal action or the enforcement of certain legal rules that would cost money, then it would not be sufficient for the member states to just pass a law following the Directive or to just say the text is directly applicable. No, they should also know that they have financial responsibility for making European legal rules work and for enabling them to be applied. 

It will be interesting what we will hear in that context. I did not go so far as to say a want a special tax or new European money – there’s no way of getting that. But I’m saying there’s a certain responsibility: If we say European law is supreme in the member countries, we must make sure that this entails not only the legal requirements, but also the implementation. 

If this kind of proposal was passed, it would then also count for other sectors, such as the EU’s new energy and renewable targets?

Yes, in reality, this is the whole thing. But I’m dealing now with urban mobility questions and so I concentrate my efforts on this battlefield – it’s big enough. But in principle this is the idea. You cannot have the cake and eat it. 

Going back to the financing options, a last one could also be to confirm the idea, in public procurement, of buying environmentally friendly vehicles and giving preference to public transport vis-à-vis other transport forms. 

The Commission is also expected to come up with a Communication on internalising the external costs of transport. How do you see this fitting in with the paper on urban transport and are there not also new sources of transport financing that could be found in this area? 

Yes, of course – and that’s why I said three, four, or more financing options were being looked into – in the sense that we have mentioned them as a potential source of new money. 

So we do feel that, in the context of modal shift, we might make use of the new concept of internalising external costs that we’re going to get in the context of the Eurovignette this summer. But I would not want to go into the details of this concept in this report. T

here was a major temptation to propose new tax schemes and we have not done that. We are not proposing congestion taxes. But what we are saying is that if there are congestion taxes, they should follow some format. And what we indirectly said, in the context of internalising external costs, is that public authorities should be allowed to spend the revenue raised for example in the context of congestion charging on subsidies for other transport- related problems – even if otherwise this would create problems under competition rules. 

Yet freight operators, which make up a large proportion of road transport, are opposed to using revenues raised on their backs to promote other transport modes. They also feel they are being unjustly penalised by the whole modal shift policy as there is often no alternative for bringing goods into cities. What do you think about this? 

We haven’t tried to solve that problem really, but we have criticised the fact that the Commission has not really looked into the freight issue deeply enough. In the five hundred questions it asks, there’s far too much concentration on personal transport and private cars. Important as these issues are, they’re only half the game. 

So we have asked for more considerations concerning freight travel and we have offered a few examples of best practice – so no legal rules, just a few hints – such as using bus lanes for freight transport also at certain times or using tramlines to help resolve the issue of the last few miles. 

Industry, traders and retailers are very concerned – and rightly so – that the problem concerns not just the people, but also the goods they want to buy and that need to come into the cities. So we have to look in that area as well. 

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