EU member states have been given final approval to start applying the 'polluter-pays' principle when setting road tolls for heavy goods vehicles. But the freight sector is complaining of an additional burden as countries are not obliged to reinvest the tax revenues in greening road transport.
The European Parliament yesterday (7 June) endorsed a compromise deal on the revision of Eurovignette Directive, finalised at the end of May after trialogue discussions between the Parliament, the Council and the European Commission.
The final vote, which marks the end of three years of heated debate, will allow member states to charge all vehicles above 3.5 tonnes not only for infrastructure costs but also for noise and pollution.
Member states are free to exempt vehicles below 12 tonnes if they wish, but must notify their reasons for doing so to the Commission.
The revised Eurovignette Directive is the first EU law to implement the bloc's wider strategy of internalising the external costs of transport.
The Parliament's rapporteur on the dossier, Belgian Socialist MEP Saïd El Khadraoui, described the achievement as an important milestone that "can dictate the direction of our transport policy for the future".
But he also noted that the final deal, approved with 505 votes in favour, 141 against and 17 abstentions, is "a compromise" both between and within the institutions. In particular, the compromise was supported "by the smallest possible minority in Council," he noted.
Indeed, the European Parliament's first reading on the proposal took place in March 2009, but the bill was later blocked by member states in the Council for some 18 months. EU transport ministers finally rubber stamped, by a small margin, a compromise agreement in October 2010.
Peripheral countries like Spain, Portugal, Greece and the Baltic states criticised the review, expressing concerns over the competitiveness of their businesses. Major freight transit countries like France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg have expressed strong support for the new green tolls.
Furthermore, as the Eurovignette concerns only electronic tolls, member states that do not have such systems in place will not be able to apply green road charges.
Today, eleven member states apply distance-based charging based on an electronic tolling system. Two others, Hungary and Poland, are planning to install similar schemes.
One of the most controversial issues of the revision dossier 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.
The Commission originally proposed to treat congestion as part of external costs, but it is now treated as part of existing infrastructure costs.
According to the revised directive, countries will have the right to vary toll tariffs during peak and off-peak hours "to ease congestion".
In congested areas higher tariffs of up to 175% above the average will be allowed – with the top tariffs collected during a maximum of five peak hours per day and lower tariffs applying for the rest of the time on the same road section.
Applying higher tolls has "the clear aim of discouraging or getting heavy lorries off the road, like the ring road around Brussels at peak times, allowing traffic to flow," said Helen Kearns, spokeswoman for EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas.
To enable hauliers to calculate their costs and plan routes, the Commission will make available a list of charges and the times when they apply throughout the EU.
No mandatory earmarking of revenues
The Commission's original proposal was to earmark the revenue generated by the new tolls "for measures aimed at facilitating efficient pricing, reducing road transport pollution at source, mitigating its effects, improving the CO2 and energy performance of vehicles, and developing alternative infrastructure for transport users".
But EU countries have insisted on getting the final say over how to spend the extra funds.
In its April vote on the dossier the European Parliament's transport committee insisted on the mandatory earmarking of revenue for reinvestment in transport infrastructure, but accepted the member states' stance in the final compromise trialogue talks on 23 May.
In the end, with the revised directive member states are merely encouraged to set aside 15% of the new charging revenues for investment in sustainable transport infrastructure (TEN-T) projects.
While Kearns insisted that there are "strong provisions on earmarking – strong incentives in place for member states to set aside tolling revenues," she added that the 15% figure "is not an obligation, it is an incentive with a monitoring system".
Indeed, on the Parliament's demand, member states will have to report back to the Commission on a regular basis on the various types of toll income, any variations applied and how they have invested the money.
All roads concerned
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, but the revised law extends the chance to toll trucks to all motorways in Europe.
The charge will have to be collected by electronic systems that are expected to be fully interoperable at EU level by 2012. A receipt clearly stating the amount of the external cost charge will be given to hauliers so that they can pass on the cost to their clients, the Commission noted.
According to the EU executive, the external cost charges will represent 3-4 euro cents per kilometre depending on the Euro class of the vehicle, the location of the roads and the level of congestion.