Austria facing court over alpine road tolls

Brenner motorway tolls discriminatory, says European Commission

Austria will face European Court proceedings over "discriminatory" alpine motorway tolls, the European Commission announced yesterday. The decision brings the issue of road pricing back into the spotlight, following the breakdown earlier this year of long-running negotiations over Swiss tolls and restrictions on heavy lorries.

In 1995 and 1996, Austria imposed steep increases in tolls for heavy lorries crossing the Alps over the Brenner motorway, which runs between Munich in Germany and Verona in Italy. Goods vehicles - 90% of which are not Austrian-registered - now pay up to AS1,500 (Ecu107) for the trip. The government credits the increases with reducing the amount of traffic on the road. However, the overall level remains inflated by lorries avoiding tight restrictions imposed by neighbouring Switzerland, where there is a 28-tonne weight limit and a night-time ban.

The tolls for taking the Brenner motorway are unacceptable, the Commission says. EU transport commissioner Neil Kinnock described them yesterday as "unilateral and discriminatory." They infringe EU law and "cannot provide long-term environmental safeguards," he said. If the court finds in its favour, the Commission plans to seek daily fines against Austria. Legal precedent would also then exist, the Commission said, for "hauliers or anyone else economically damaged by the [tolls] to seek redress through the Austrian court system."

The Austrian government plans to fight its corner, the economics ministry told ENDS Daily today, and particularly its system of using toll revenues to pay for the whole motorway system. The country has raised AS80 billion (Ecu5.7 billion) of private finance to pay for its 600 kilometre network of motorways. Interest payments are running at AS4 billion annually, a quarter more than the AS3 billion raised by road tolls.

The Commission says this is illegal under existing EU law. In a statement released yesterday, the Commission stressed that cost recovery can only apply to "that part of the network on which the tolls are levied....The Brenner tolls may therefore not be used to finance general cost increases of the entire motorway network."

Austrian environmentalists have greeted the Commission's decision with disappointment, seeing in it the seeds of free-for-all road access to congested and environmentally sensitive alpine routes. "What we demand from the government is not to abolish the high toll, but to ensure that all other Alpine passes should introduce the same high tolls," said Matthias Schickhofer of Greenpeace Austria.

The freight industry, on the other hand, is satisfied to see the Commission taking action. "We are opposed to unilateral adoption of tolls which are discriminatory and not within EU rules," an EU road freight industry spokesperson said.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111; Austrian economics ministry, tel: +43 1 71102; Greenpeace Austria, tel: +43 1 713 0031.

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