MEPs divided over congestion charges for trucks


Despite opposition from conservative MEP’s, the European Parliament’s transport committee yesterday (11 February) adopted a report backing national governments’ right to charge heavy goods vehicles for the noise, pollution and congestion they cause.

Adopted with 31 votes for and 16 against, the report nevertheless only partly supports the inclusion of congestion as a chargeable external cost of transport. 

According to the adopted compromise, which was not supported by the centre-right EPP-ED group, national governments may only apply congestion charging to trucks on two conditions. First, they must conduct a cost-benefit analysis and submit an action plan setting out their measures to reduce congestion before applying the charge, and, second, a similar charge must be imposed on private cars too. 

Meanwhile, noise and air pollution costs could be charged following standardised formulas and respecting certain maximum limits, MEPs said. 

However, the committee decided not to allow member states to charge trucks for costs related to CO2 emissions, climate change or road accidents. 

Finally, MEPs want to oblige member states to reinvest charging revenue into researching cleaner vehicles, better infrastructure and alternative modes of transport.

"Including external costs, such as air pollution, noise or congestion, in the price of transport must not lead to an extra burden on the European road transport sector. Greening transport is a positive step towards sustainable mobility, provided that revenues from charges are reinvested in the road transport sector," said EPP-ED spokeswoman Corien Wortmann-Kool

But the EPP-ED group rejected congestion charging for trucks and private cars. As the transport committee voted in favour of a general European congestion charge, the group voted against the proposal as a whole. 

"A new congestion charge does not belong in this proposal. There are already plenty of opportunities for member states to charge congestion in urban areas. The aim of this proposal is greening transport. A congestion charge has limited environmental effect, but hampers economic growth," Wortmann-Kool added.

The International Road Transport Union (IRU) expressed its surprise that the Parliament had backed the imposition of extra charges on the industry given the current economic context. Furthermore, the committee's "foggy message" on the inclusion of congestion as a chargeable external cost "opens the road to any possible solution for congestion as an external cost," said Marc Billet of the IRU's EU delegation, expressin his hope that the EPP-ED Group's position on the issue would gain more support before the Parliament's plenary vote. 

European business organisations Eurochambres and EuroCommerce, and UEAPME's transport forum, welcomed the vote as "a step in the right direction" because MEPs rejected a number of "questionable and over-complicated proposals".

Meanwhile, they remain concerned about the likely economic impact of the inclusion of congestion charges on European businesses operations, in particular for SMEs, "who depend on transport as a crucial link for their economic activities". 

The European rail sector argued that should the legislation fail to take into account CO2 emissions and should it complicate the introduction of congestion charges for trucks, as voted for by the MEPs, "the proposed legislation will only have a limited impact on greening Europe's transport sector". Thus the sector sees "room for improvement" before the plenary vote.

"The rail sector also believes that the polluter should pay and not be reimbursed. Revenues should therefore be earmarked for investments in sustainable transport to offset negative externalities rather than being reinvested in road infrastructure," according to a rail industry press statement. 

Transport & Environment (T&E), an NGO, deplored the fact that MEPs "voted to water down the Commission proposal" regarding the inclusion of congestion as a chargeable external cost by adding a clause that would only permit member states to charge lorries for congestion if cars were also subject to such charges. Regarding air pollution and noise, T&E lamented that MEPs did not manage to change "the artificially low caps on charges put forward in the Commission proposal". 

The International Society of Doctors for the Environment (ISDE) stated that "as doctors, we see victims of traffic accidents, and as scientists, we are aware of the many silent effects on health caused by noise and air pollution." ISDE President Hanns Moshammer argued that "health costs due to transport must be borne by those who cause them," adding that health organisations will deliver an open letter to the Parliament plenary hoping that their vote "will show more courage and commitment".

In July 2008, the European Commission proposed a revision of the current Eurovignette Directive on tolls for trucks to allow national governments to offset pollution costs (EURACTIV 07/07/08). 

The Commission's strategy for the internalisation of external transport costs is part of a package of initiatives intended to make transport more sustainable. The aim of the initiative is to develop a transport pricing system to cover the negative environmental impacts of road freight, such as noise and pollution.

While the proposal was hailed by environmental NGOs, member states remain divided over the issue (EURACTIV 10/12/08). Industry stakeholders have joined forces to denounce the "incorrect" assumption that merely increasing costs will lead to more sustainable transport (EURACTIV 07/01/09).

  • 10 March 2009: Parliament plenary vote scheduled.
  • Should the revised legislation go through, the rules will not be binding, instead setting common EU standards for those member states that choose to apply the charges. 

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