Autobahn drive to cost foreigners under German plan

OPEN ROAD: A German autobahn, circa 1935, built under the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler.
OPEN ROAD: A German autobahn, circa 1935, built under the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler.

For the privilege of driving on Germany's speedy autobahn, Chancellor Angela Merkel plans to charge everyone, except Germans.

After weeks of negotiations, Merkel's conservative bloc and the Social Democrats agreed to levy a toll for using the country's highways as part of a deal to form a governing coalition. While details remain vague before they take power, which will be after Social Democrat party members vote on the agreement by December 12, the one clear stipulation is that the tax shouldn't result in additional costs for Germans.

The plan has unleashed a backlash. Drivers from neighboring countries say Germany is undermining Europe's open borders. Even locals question the point of a targeted toll, which would raise about €260 million (NZ$429.7m), according to an estimate from German car club ADAC, because it would do little to cover costs to upgrade aging infrastructure.

"We have made Europe into a place with the free flow of traffic and now we really threaten this," said Mike Pinckaers, a spokesman for Dutch drivers' association ANWB. If Germany starts such a toll, other countries could follow suit, creating divisions and potentially "eroding the European spirit."

Germany was a transport pioneer when it opened Europe's first car-only freeway in 1921 in Berlin. The free-wheeling autobahn, which often doesn't have a speed limit, has spurred a motoring culture, helping BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Porsche dominate the market for high-end cars.

That legacy of speed is in jeopardy as money spent on roads, bridges, railways and public transport has fallen in real terms or stagnated over the past two decades, while passenger traffic has climbed 27 per cent and freight use has soared 75 per cent, according to data from the Environment Ministry and German economic researcher DIW.

The toll would especially impact nearby residents like Elisabeth Jaeger, who lives in Dornbirn in western Austria, about 20 kilometres from Germany. She crosses the border about once a month, including for shopping trips to Salzburg, because the German autobahn is faster than Austria's twisting Alpine roads.

"Everyone does that where I'm from," said the 34-year-old psychologist and educator. "I would find it very unfair if there should be a toll only for foreigners. It would affect a lot of people and divert traffic through many small villages."

Jaeger isn't alone in her frustration. Austrian Transport Minister Doris Bures threatened to sue Germany before the European Court of Justice if a toll discriminates against foreign drivers, according to a November 27 report in the Kronen Zeitung newspaper.

European countries such as Italy and France require drivers to pay fees at highway toll booths, while car owners in Switzerland and Austria buy an annual pass for freeways. The German system, while not yet decided, could grant the country's drivers an autobahn sticker as part of their annual vehicle tax payment, requiring foreigners to purchase one separately.

"German drivers are paying almost everywhere in Europe and that's why it's only fair when foreign drivers pay on Germany roads," said Juergen Fischer, a spokesman for the Christian Social Union, which backs the toll and is a sister party to Merkel's CDU. "We need new sources of finance to retain and further improve our good transport infrastructure."

Germany is seeking to raise money from other countries' citizens as debt-strapped European states carry out austerity measures. The move risks the ire of neighbors like France, which is grappling with budget problems and has set up speed traps in part to raise funds from motorists. Merkel says the toll is necessary.

"We want to do it because we need funds for transport infrastructure," she said in a November 27 interview with public broadcaster ZDF. "It's important to me that no German will be burdened with more costs." The chancellor's position on road tolls hasn't changed, Steffen Seibert, her chief spokesman, said in a text message recently to Bloomberg.

To keep Europe's largest economy moving, Germany needs to invest at least €6.5 billion a year more to maintain its transport network, including 13,000 kilometres of autobahn, according to a study by the DIW institute in Berlin.

The wear and tear of 43 million cars vying for road space is causing German infrastructure to crumble. According to a January report prepared for parliament, 14 per cent of the country's 39,000 highway bridges are in a condition that could compromise traffic safety.

Still, the problems are largely self-made. German drivers already pay about €53 billion a year in car-related taxes and fees, while only €19 billion are reinvested in infrastructure, according to the ADAC.

"We simply need to use more of the money that's already paid for infrastructure," said Christian Garrels, a spokesman for the Munich-based drivers' group. "We don't need a toll."

ADAC expects the plan to fail for legal reasons, meaning Germans will also face an additional levy or the toll gets cancelled. The status quo would be the preferred outcome for Oliver Feucht-Zwerger. The 34-year-old resident of Ambilly, France, takes his wife and son to visit family in southern Germany about 10 times a year.

"Germany's road system is working well," said Feucht- Zwerger, a corporate controller who drives a stretch of autobahn that snakes along the Rhine river to visit his parents in Goldscheuer. "Why change something that doesn't need to be fixed?"

-Washington Post/Bloomberg