Pay to Go Bump in the Road

Germany’s proposed highway toll hits a rough patch in the European Commission over the question: Do the fees discriminate against foreign drivers?
Imagine those lights as euros.

Germany’s controversial road toll on passenger vehicles has run into heated opposition from the European Commission – just days before the proposed law goes to the German cabinet on Wednesday.

The European commissioner for transportation, Violeta Bulc, fired off a statement to her German counterpart last week, claiming the road toll would in effect discriminate against foreign drivers and was illegal under E.U. law.

Germany’s transportation minister, Alexander Dobrindt, countered with his own statement that Ms. Bulc was mistaken. He insisted that the planned road toll would not discriminate because it would apply to all passenger vehicles on German roads, domestic and foreign.

For German motorists, however, the charge would be offset by reduced motor-vehicle taxes. In that way, Mr. Dobrindt believes the toll would not burden German drivers and still conform to E.U. law.

Through the motor-vehicle tax, the owners of all cars registered in Germany already help pay for roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure, wrote Mr. Dobrindt. That contribution must be taken into account, he said.

Mr. Dobrindt believes the toll would not burden German drivers and still conform to E.U. law.

The proposed road toll would raise money needed to repair and expand German roads. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition wants to introduce the infrastructure usage fee in 2016.

According to Mr. Dobrindt’s calculations, the road toll would bring in €3.7 billion, or $4.6 billion, annually. German car drivers would then be exempted from part of the motor-vehicle tax, totaling about €3 billion, leaving €700 million to come solely from drivers from abroad.

Ms. Bulc argues that the planned toll leads to “indirect discrimination” against drivers from other E.U. countries. She said the draft legislation violates “the fundamental treaty principle of non-discrimination.”

The European transportation commissioner also criticized the short-term stickers that foreign drivers would buy as too expensive compared to annual permits. “Drivers of cars with smaller motors pay a disproportionately high price for short-term stickers in comparison to one-year stickers,” Ms. Bulc said.

Short-term permits would cost €22 for two months or €10 for 10 days. One-year stickers would cost between €25 and €130, depending on the vehicle’s size and emissions.

Spokesperson Jakub Adamowicz said the European Commission – the executive arm of the European Union – had discussed the passenger-vehicle toll with German officials several times in recent months. He said that during a meeting last month, Ms. Bulc explained her opinion that the toll would discriminate against foreign drivers.

All drivers, Germans and foreigners, must be treated equally. Jakub Adamowicz, Spokesman for the European Commission

The commission supports the principle that users can be made to pay for roads through tolls, but it opposes any discrimination against E.U. citizens. “All drivers, Germans and foreigners, must be treated equally,” Mr. Adamowicz said.

Ms. Bulc’s letter last Friday was apparently in reaction to Mr. Dobrindt’s urgent request for more discussions in Brussels before the German cabinet meets on Wednesday. She affirmed her opposition in the letter.

A spokesperson for Mr. Dobrindt accused Ms. Bulc of having written hurriedly and prematurely and argued that the commission apparently was not familiar with the two current legislative drafts ― about introducing the toll and offsetting the motor-vehicle tax. The German government sent the drafts to Brussels a week ago.

The European Commission will issue an official statement regarding the toll only when the law passes the Bundestag, Germany’s lower legislative chamber, Mr. Adamowicz said.

“As the guardian of treaties, the commission will evaluate the law once it has been passed,” he added.

In addition to a treaty-violation procedure by the European Commission, complaints could also be submitted by neighboring countries to the European Court of Justice.


This story first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the authors: [email protected]