An end to free roads in Germany? | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 31.10.2013
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An end to free roads in Germany?

Germany needs to invest in its large but worn road network. The country's major parties agree on that, but money remains an issue. Some politicians call for a toll on cars while others want only foreigners to fork out.

Germany has a road network spanning 13,000 kilometers (8,078 miles) of autobahn highways and 40,000 kilometers of main roads. The federal government plans to invest around 7 billion euros ($9.5 billion) by 2017 in building new and maintaining existing roads.

Many of them are in poor shape, according to Alexander Eisenkopf, an expert on mobility management at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen. "The bridges pose significant problems," he said. "Many of them have had to be partially or fully closed, and major repair work on the others while still in operation is highly difficult. The municipalities also have enormous investment problems."

'Pure propaganda'

So who should pay to use the roads? That's a question many politicians are asking. Currently, only domestic and international truckers pay a road toll in Germany. It's calculated according to the distance traveled on the autobahn and major roads and applies to vehicles 12 tons and heavier.

The Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, has made a car roll a condition for it to join a new coalition government, which is currently being negotiated. CSU party chief Horst Seehofer, however, insists on excluding German motorists from such a toll.

German road repair (c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Many German roads are in desparate need of repair

"That's pure political propaganda," said Eisenkopf. "Your have to wonder what such a toll would generate if collected solely from foreigners."

But a road toll, others have said, will be a hard sell to German motorists, who already pay relatively high fuel and automobile taxes.

Even though German parliamentarians have yet to put their final stamp of approval on a car toll, experts have said a fee of some form is inevitable.

Keeping operating costs low

The CSU favors a vignette model as practiced in Austria and Switzerland: There, motorists pay a set fee to use certain roads or roads for a certain period of time. Austria, for example, offers annual, bi-monthly and 10-day vignettes.

The costs to operate these systems are relatively low, according to Eberhard Rotter, transport policy spokesman of the CSU parliamentary group in Bavarian state government. "It makes no sense if we take in a billion euros from a vignette but have system costs of 800 million euros," he told DW. "The goal must be to generate more revenue to expand roads."

A distance-based toll, such as those used in France and Italy, is more costly to operate, according to Rotter. This model is technically more complex, he said, and is also more expensive for motorists to use - about 5 euros per 100 kilometers. Rotter said a one-year vignette in Germany could cost around 100 euros.

Eberhard Rotter

Eberhard Rotter believes toll operating costs must be kept low

"It's clear that we can't offer a vignette to foreigners only," Rotter said. "Germans and other people living in the country would have to have a vignette, too."

This group, however, could be compensated through a lower vehicle tax, he added.

Need for German-driver revenue

It doesn't appear if the European Union intends to stand in the way of German road toll. EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas has said that a move like that could offer acceptable financial relief for German motorists.

Some experts, like Ralf Resch from the German automobile club ADAC, have said building and maintaining German roads requires the financial support of everyone who uses them. Foreign cars, which account for around 5 percent of traffic on German roads "would generate a maximum 262 million euros in road toll revenues," Resch told DW.

That, he added, would be just a drop in the bucket, given the more than 7 billion euros required for the upkeeps of the road network. But if the 40 million registered cars in Germany had to pay a toll without any tax relief, the two groups together could contribute 4 billion euros a year to expand and maintain the German road network.

It's crucial, however, that the additional revenue actually fund roads, experts said, given that German motorists already contribute 53 billion euros annually to state coffers through automobile, petroleum and value-added taxes. Less than one third of that revenue is spent on transportation infrastructure. The lion's share goes to social programs, such as social security payments.

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