Now is the time to end this major blemish in EU transport policy

March 12, 2008

Editorial by: João Vieira T&E Policy Officer It has taken 15 years, but there may be light at the end of the tunnel on one of the EU's policies that has never been a model of natural justice.

[mailchimp_signup][/mailchimp_signup]Since T&E first published its pioneering study ‘Getting the Prices Right’ in 1993, environmental organisations have been lobbying the EU to get transport users to pay for the full costs of their activity. There have been enough commitments over the years: the ‘polluter pays’ principle has been accepted EU policy for a decade, and the 2001 Common Transport Policy committed the EU to internalising external costs. But only now are we hopeful of seeing any progress.

For years the reason given was that it was too complicated to work out the costs. This was a lame excuse, and since the Dutch research institute CE Delft prepared a methodology on charging road hauliers for the unpaid costs of sending freight by road (the so-called Handbook, published in November), it is an excuse with no legitimacy at all. The Commission will present this methodology to the European Parliament and Council in June, and the transport commissioner Jacques Barrot himself has said this opportunity will be used to propose a new directive promoting ‘smart’ road user charging schemes.

Let us be clear: a major revision is not necessary. The current directive is workable in many respects, and limiting its scope to roads forming part of the trans-European transport network (TEN) is fine, as all other roads should continue to be the member states’ responsibility. But it has a major flaw. It limits the amount member states can charge hauliers for using TEN roads to what the infrastructure costs to build and maintain. In other words, external costs such as pollution, climate change, noise and other damage to society not paid by the road user cannot be charged for. This runs contrary to the EU Treaty, which commits the EU to the ‘polluter pays’ principle.

If the EU is to make progress on this, the revision of the directive must eliminate the ban on charging for externalities. The CE Delft Handbook estimates that the external costs caused by lorries in interurban routes can be as high as 39 cents per kilometre during off-peak periods and €1.09 per kilometre in peak periods. Since infrastructure costs are in the range of 15 cents per kilometre, a proposal for a revised directive has to consider that external costs might be significantly higher than infrastructure costs. Does the political will exist to follow the ‘polluter pays’ principle, even when the rise in road user charges will bring out cries of anguish from the road community?

It ought to be. The restriction on charging for externalities has been one of the EU’s major blemishes in transport. Now is the opportunity to end it, and to end it properly.

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