Rail tunnel financing saves congestion charge in Gothenburg

The city council in Gothenburg has decided to keep the city’s congestion charge despite the result of a referendum held last September that called for its abolition. The decision to maintain the charge was taken in order to protect funding for a new rail tunnel under the city centre.

The congestion charge was introduced at the start of 2013 following agreement by all the leading political parties in the council on a package to fund a new rail tunnel and various road schemes. The parties all recognised the need for the rail tunnel and had become convinced that the only way to fund it was from surplus revenue from a congestion charge after projects in Stockholm had been funded in a similar way.

But following a campaign by motorists which gained the support of a powerful local newspaper, enough signatures were collected to force the council to debate holding a referendum, and the proposal was approved having narrowly achieved the 34% of the councillors’ votes it needed. The referendum took place last September and resulted in 57% voting for the charge to be abolished.

In Sweden referendums are not binding, but the various political parties undertook extensive studies on alternatives to the charge. They concluded that environmental and congestion targets could be met by other means – albeit by fairly draconian parking charges and city access restrictions – but the rail tunnel could only be financed via the congestion charge. The council therefore voted on 11 March to keep the charge.

Gothenburg’s congestion charge has been hailed as a success with city lord mayor Lena Malm telling the EU Observer that in the first year there was a 12-13% reduction in traffic during the hours when the charge was in place. In London’s congestion zone, where traffic has declined 10% since the charge was introduced in 2003, the measure has also been credited with decreasing traffic accidents by one-third.

T&E’s Gothenburg-based campaigner Magnus Nilsson said: 'To outsiders, the referendum outcome may look like the politicians have defied the voters, but it doesn’t look like that within the Swedish political context. Rather, it reflects how combining non-binding referendums with representative democracy can create problems.

'The political majority in favour of the rail tunnel is massive and no alternative financing tool is in sight, so the council has decided that the overall benefit of the tunnel outweighs the wishes of motorists not to pay a congestion charge. Since the next elections are not until 2018, the politicians probably believe the tunnel and the charge will be off the agenda by then.'