Transport ministers back optional road tolls


Meeting in La Rochelle on 1-2 September for an informal session, EU transport ministers showed some reserve towards Commission proposals to charge truck drivers for the costs they impose in terms of congestion, noise and air pollution.

The EU’s 27 transport ministers reached “a consensus” on reviewing the ‘Eurovignette’ directive on road charging, announced French Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau after the meeting. He said the agreement was that charges “should rather be optional and that revenues should be allocated as European states want them to be”. 

But according to the vice chair of the European Parliament’s Transport Committee Gilles Savary, who took part in the meeting, the Commission’s July proposals encountered a “front of scepticism led by Spain and numerous countries of the periphery”. 

Spain believes plans to allow governments to integrate the costs of congestion, accidents, noise and air pollution into toll prices come at decidedly the wrong time, with soaring oil prices already driving up the cost of road haulage in an unsustainable manner (EURACTIV 09/07/08). 

Eastern European countries, as well as Finland and Portugal, also expressed fears that the plans could hurt their economies as they rely strongly on road transport for trade with the rest of the EU. 

EU Transport Commissioner Antonio Tajani attempted to reassure ministers that the Eurovignette was not a “new tax” on hauliers but rather a tool aimed at helping them cut their costs by reducing congestion. At the invitation of his French counterpart, Swiss Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger told the meeting of the “positive experiences” in his country following the introduction of a similar scheme in 2001. According to him, it raised the productivity of the road freight sector. 

But a number of countries appeared unconvinced, with some questioning whether congestion costs should be included in the revised Eurovignette Directive at all, arguing that it would be unfair to impose these costs on lorries alone. This would “considerably reduce the impact” of the text, warned Savary. 

Predictably, the most contentious issue was the Commission proposal for compulsory earmarking of revenues generated by external cost charges, with the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands leading the opposition on this point. 

Ministers also discussed measures to give fresh impetus to developing “motorways of the sea” project, originally heralded as a solution to Europe’s congestion problems, but on which no substantive action has yet been taken. Ministers want to make them more practicable, establish closer working relationships with manufacturers and simplify funding procedures with the help of the European Investment Bank. 

Also, ahead of an action plan on urban transport, due to be published by the Commission later this month, ministers stressed the need to “accompany and encourage all the initiatives of territorial communities in the area of urban transport”. But they remained divided as to the level of EU intervention required to support the emergence of a real European market for clean urban transport. While some called for incentives from the Commission through a Civitas Plus-type programme for financing sustainable urban mobility programmes, others preferred only the establishment of ‘resource centres’ designed to encourage the exchange of best practice and information between European citizens. 

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