EU gears up for more road toll schemes

The European Union could introduce a common rule to align member states' road toll schemes for private vehicles. [Highways Agency/Flickr]

The European Commission announced it will propose a new law to make road toll schemes across Europe more user-friendly if it fails to achieve it through non-binding measures.

Speaking at a European Parliament hearing on European road toll systems for private vehicles on Wednesday (4 November), the Commission said there was a lot of room for new initiatives in the area.
As more countries introduce road toll schemes, the European Commission wants to ensure that the new set ups are easy to use across the EU and are non-discriminatory. 
Toll roads have been set up in Hungary, the UK, and Latvia in the recent months. Sweden, Belgium and Norway are planning to put in place such schemes in 2016.
“We have seen a proliferation of national draft schemes lately,” said the Commission at the hearing. “But we need to be mindful of the overall coherence of the introduction of those schemes.” 
The announcement comes two weeks after Germany introduced a controversial law that charges vehicles for the use of its autobahn. While all drivers technically have to pay for the same highway, German citizens are given the opportunity to deduct these costs from their annual car tax. The law has yet to be approved by Berlin, but if it comes into force, the system will discriminate against foreign drivers.  
The EU’s executive arm refused to comment on the German initiative during the hearing, as the Commission does not take a position on draft laws. But unable to escape media pressure, Siim Kallas, the previous Transport Commissioner made earlier a statement on the issue. 
“We strongly believe that all European drivers should be treated equally. That’s in the Treaty; it’s not negotiable,” said Kallas.
“Whether you are German, Italian, Austrian or Dutch you should pay the same charge as any other user on the same German, French or Greek motorway.” 
Violeta Bulc, the new Transport Commissioner, who took office less than a week ago, is yet to take a stand on the issue.
Financing and maintaining road infrastructures 
Policy makers, industry representatives, and NGOs present at the hearing, also discussed the option of aligning member states’ road toll systems for private vehicles to prevent having 28 different ones. They also discussed how to finance and maintain road infrastructures.

Road charging helps maintain infrastructures and it’s a revenue source for member states. The EC has been a strong promoter of the user and polluter pays principle through road charging. 
At the moment, only tolls for heavy goods vehicles are regulated at the European level. The private vehicles, which include passenger cars, motorcycles and light commercial vehicles, are regulated by the national laws. The Commission, however, monitors that the EU countries’ charging schemes comply with principles of non-discrimination and proportionality.
Following presentations and discussions, the audience remained divided over whether a European road toll system should be put in place. 
Wim van de Camp, an MEP from the European People’s Party, said his group will favour common rules at the EU level. He said member states “need to align their systems, to make life easier for road users”. 
Representing the users’ point of view in the panel, Lauriane Krid, Policy Director at Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, said that the road systems should be tailored to member state’s needs instead of having generalised road pricing in Europe. 

According to IRU, road users already contribute substantially to road maintenance, but it’s up to the member states to efficiently allocate the revenues.
Whether the EU will have common rules for private vehicles will be the job of the Commissioner Bulc, to decide. The new college of Commissioners has promised to present their working programme with concrete proposals in its first 100 days of work. 
In the mission letter describing Commissioner Bulc’s responsibilities for the next five years in the transport sector, President Juncker said she should “ensure an EU wide focus on optimal connectivity in order to connect different modes of transport and facilitate the lives of the travelling public”.
“You should also develop policies to foster a cross-transport approach increasingly based on a “user-pays” philosophy, on a non-discriminatory basis,” President Juncker continued. 
William Todts, senior transport policy officer at Transport and Environment said that Europe “needs smarter solutions to the acute problems of annoying traffic jams and rising emissions from road transport.”
“Vignettes are both discriminatory and ineffective in discouraging unnecessary travel. So we really hope Commissioner Bulc will use all the tools available – technical but also financial – to encourage member states to set up distance-based charging schemes that do make people use roads more efficiently,” he added. 

The European Commission has adopted over the years a number of common rules in the road transport sector, but member states still have the exclusivity of making their own rules in many areas. The EU sets minimum standards for minimum annual vehicle taxes and for tolls and user charges for heavy goods vehicles. It does not, however, legislate on tolls for private vehicles. 

With the increase of number in new road tolls in the EU, it could look at adopting new rules to align these schemes across the union. 

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