There was something definitely James Bond about the proceedings which thick European accents in full speech mode did little to dispel. Just a short walk from the European Commission’s monumental Berlaymont headquarters in eastern Brussels, the large, echoing conference hall in Rue Froissart is flanked with sinisterly thick, slanted plate glass windows.
Every expense was spared for this gathering of the Continent’s transport industry, held to discuss the findings of the European Commission’s consultation on road charging. Bottled water and pencils were the extent of the hospitality. The heating was broken. The schedule was punishing: two shorts breaks, one with a coffee.
Overall, there was a sense of arguments made many times before, and a slightly depressed atmosphere after recent squeezes on the Connecting Europe Facility budget (likely to come under fresh assault from David Cameron at the EU summit in January).
Mainly though the discussion was haunted by how Road Charging can be sold to sceptical voters. Earmarking – where tolls are directly invested in infrastructure, the political underpinning of an unpopular policy – never seems to make it past meetings with member state politicians.
There is also much less consensus on the subject than you might expect.
The morning session particularly was packed. On one side of us sat a member of the European cycling association. On the other was a guy from the truck section of the French ministry of Transport.
First up was head of ASFA, the French road operator association, who made a pretty effective pitch for any business. France has used toll roads since 1955. Their roads enjoy a 91% approval rating, even by drivers from neighbouring countries (apart from the Dutch), all ‘without costing a penny from the State’.
French companies already operate roads, bridges and tunnels in Germany, Greece, Slovakia, Russia and – of course – the UK.
Then came the findings of the consultation itself. Three hundred replies were received in total, half from citizens. Along with the Germans, best represented were Brits, at 14%. Unsurprisingly we were also the most negative. Broadly the Commission says there is overall qualified support for its initial proposals, as contained in its 2011 Transport White Paper.
Next was the Polish Directorate for Roads describing the planned growth of the country’s road network. From 2015-2020 ‘Poland will be a massive building site’ in which the whole of Europe, apart from the UK, seems to have invested.
After that, a French MEP tried to pour cold water on some of the Commission’s assumptions, asking how it could do less rather than more. Similarly, the NGO Transport&Environment, firmly in favour of tolling, questioned whether transport will continue to grow at its recent pace (adding that transport was a more acceptable source of general revenue raising taxation than labour, for instance). Then a Belgian academic said it was essential to maximise use of the current infrastructure through variable tolling before investing in new capacity.
This was all brought to us in stunning, real-time translation from shadowy figures behind the glass windows. Not just with perfect inflection – and jokes – but emphasis, flourishes and oratorical melodrama too. Amazing.
Most hair-raising were the presentations from the commercial vehicle sector. DHL Freight, Eurolines coaches and the International Road Transport Union all have to deal with the costly hotchpotch of current charging systems but, even so, to hear their unanimous, strident call for cars to be included in charging schemes quite took the breath away. What a fractious bunch we road users are.
Motorists were not specifically represented until the FIA – on behalf of Europe’s national motoring clubs (AA, RAC, etc) – took to the stage at the end. Firmly against tolls, it’s line was ‘there is no golden, EU-wide silver bullet that can solve the problems transport faces‘, certainly not road charging, chillingly adding, ‘Limitation in personal mobility is not the solution.’
This is all very well, but the FIA was something of a lone voice.
There wasn’t much audience interaction. The Norwegian ministry of transport (not an EU member) asked about defining the ‘benefit received’ to the motorist but got a non-specific response, while a magnificent lecture from an impatient Italian road operator finished by saying foreign motorists should recognise roads were built for the benefit of locals, not them.
Most interesting was the German motoring club, ADAC, which said a survey of its 18 million members saw a majority against road charging (we’d already heard how the Dutch government has been trying to introduce tolls for 25 years). A German MEP then dared to propose a vignette (time based) system, an idea specifically rejected by the Commission on many occasions as a blunt instrument and discriminatory.
Finally, the Big Man, Transport commissioner Siim Kallas, the former prime minister of Estonia. As he sees it road charging will replace falling fuel revenues, tackle congestion, maintain and improve infrastructure, and remove distortions in the single market.
We have to wait until June 2013 to hear the final proposal but his current thinking is that trucks will get a Single European Tolling Area, fully interoperable, with vehicles charged the same in all EU countries, on a pay-as-you-go basis.
For cars, variable tolls will manage traffic and congestion. There will be transparency on how charges are set, and revenues spent. Kallas didn’t say the Commission would set the tolls themselves but he did heavily hint it would take a portion of the revenue for itself.
Quite how much notice of any of this the British government is taking – as it builds up its own road charging proposal – remains to be seen.
For more information, and some of the presentations, click here.