Austria loses Brenner tolls court case

European Court of Justice backs complaints of discrimination against foreign hauliers

The European Court of Justice has ruled that Austrian road tolls for heavy lorries using the transalpine Brenner motorway are unjustifiably expensive and discriminate against foreigners. The judgement marks an end to five years of legal battle between Austria and the European Commission, but is likely to further stoke political tension. Austrian environmental groups having threatened to defend the tolls at all costs (ENDS Daily 26 June).

The Brenner motorway is a key European road transport route linking Germany and Italy over the Austrian Alpine mountains. In the mid-1990s an existing lorry tolling system was altered in two steps, increasing charges by up to 360% for vehicles with more than three axles using the entire length of the motorway while leaving tolls for partial transits at lower levels.

Even before the second stage of the changes was introduced in February 1996 the European Commission began challenging Austria to show that the new tolls were in compliance with the 1993 "Eurovignette" directive, which regulates road vehicle charging in the EU. In particular, this law (now replaced by a 1999 directive) requires that member states do not discriminate against foreign nationals and that road tolls are based on the real cost of maintaining infrastructure. Austria has been condemned for breaching both requirements, over two years after the case was lodged with the European Court (ENDS Daily 28 May 1998).

In the case of the non-discrimination clause, the court notes that about 84% of vehicles in Austria with more than three axles are not Austrian-registered, and 99% of these use the full length of the Brenner motorway, incurring the increased charges. It concludes that the tolling system does indeed tend to favour Austrian hauliers, who travel all of the motorway less frequently, over foreign ones.

On the infrastructure charging complaint the court backs the Commission's complaint that the increase in Brenner toll revenues from euros 78.8m (AS1.1bn) in 1995 to euros 108.6m in 1997 was not justified. According to calculations made by Austria itself, the court notes, some 26% of the infrastructure costs of the entire Austrian motorway and national highway network are attributed to the Brenner section even though it accounts for only 2% of the network.

* In a separate ruling, the European Court of Justice today condemned Ireland for failing to transpose two EU directives governing the transport of dangerous goods by road. The case concerns a 1994 directive and a subsequent 1996 directive updating the first law in the light of technical progress. The deadline for transposition was 1 January 1997.

Follow Up:
European Court of Justice, tel: +352 43031, and the full judgement in case C-205/98.

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