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Germany

Germany slaps contentious toll on autobahns

The German parliament has finally passed a much-contested toll on highways - a key demand of the government's conservative wing. But opposition from border states and neighboring countries could still block it.

Motorists could soon have to pay an "infrastructure fee" to use Germany's highways. Despite reservations within government ranks, criticism from the European Union, and outrage from opposition parties, the governing coalition passed an amended, two-years-in-the-making bill on Friday morning.

If the upper house of the German parliament doesn't put the brakes on it, German car-drivers will pay a toll on all federal roads and highways, while foreign motorists will pay to use the 13,000-kilometer (8,000-mile) highway network.

The exact prices, depending on the size and environmental standards of the car, will range between 67 euros and 130 euros ($72 - $140) per year - with drivers of gasoline cars paying less than diesel, as will drivers of cars classified as "Euro 6."

Foreign drivers will also have the option of paying short-term tolls - either for 10 days or two months - costing between 2.50 euros and 50 euros. The toll will be charged via an electronic system, and enforced with random checks on registration plates. Exemptions were built in to accommodate some of the myriad of objections: German motorists will see their car taxes reduced, while motorcycles, electric cars, cars used by the disabled and ambulances will all be exempt.

Deutschland Autobahn PKW Maut Symbolbild (Getty Images/S. Gallup)

Germany's border states fear the toll's economic impact

Wearying process

The highway toll has spent a long time in the logjam of Germany's exhausting legislative process. It originally passed through both houses of parliament in 2015, only for the European Commission to step in and demand that non-German motorists were not disadvantaged. Yet the opposition Left and Green parties argued on Friday that foreigners were still going to be penalized, even with the amendment.

The political bickering has been tenacious - and is still ongoing. Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt, whose Christian Social Union (CSU) demanded the toll's inclusion in the 2013 coalition contract, tried to head off criticism on Friday by declaring in the Bundestag: "We're finally creating fairness on our roads," because the toll ensured that those using road network were also investing in it.

In response, the Green party's parliamentary leader, Anton Hofreiter, was quick to count up what he considered the toll's flaws, condemning it as an "anti-European project" that would be particularly bad for Germany's border regions. "We have to worry whether our neighbors in the Netherlands carry on shopping so much with us," commented Lower Saxony's Economy Minister Olaf Lies to broadcaster NDR.

The head of the center-left Social Democrat (SPD) faction, Sören Bartol, admitted candidly that his MPs were only voting in favor of the bill out of government coalition loyalty, but "with a big stomach ache." This duly drew an accusation of cowardice from the Greens. (In the end, 25 SPD MPs rebelled on Friday.)

What's the point? And will it really happen?

Dobrindt's department has calculated that the toll will bring an extra 500 million euros a year to invest in Germany's road infrastructure. But that figure that has been questioned by, among others, the General German Automobile Club (ADAC), who said that the costs of introducing the toll and the potential impact on tourism and industry had to be factored in.

All of which means there are still doubts about whether the toll will ever be enforced. The upper house of Germany's parliament, the Bundesrat, is made up of Germany's state governments, many of whom have good economic reasons to object to the project - and no obligation to the federal coalition government.

Deutschland Bundestag PKW Maut Abstimmung (picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka)

The Bundestag passed the toll despite a flurry of criticism

Some of the states on Germany's outer borders - Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony, and Rhineland-Palatinate - on Friday said they were going to raise objections in the parliamentary transport committee, which would likely delay its passing until after this September's election.

By the same token, an alliance of Germany's neighbors - Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands - have already threatened to take Germany to the European Court of Justice, with Austrian Transport Minister Jörg Leichtfried slamming the measure as a "foreigner toll."

Environmental objections

Not that Dobrindt and the CSU was completely surrounded by enemies. The conservative minister almost found an unlikely friend in BUND, one of Germany's leading environmental organizations, which has long called for extra charges for road users - but only in principle. In fact, the toll in its present form was equally unacceptable to Jens Hilgenberg, transport specialist at BUND.

For one thing, Hilgenberg had major issues with Dobrindt's environmental categorization of certain cars, which, he said, favored cars that were actually very damaging. "Even studies commissioned by the transport ministry have said that the 'Euro 6' cars are not clean," he told DW.

Hilgenberg also objected to the fact that the toll was being charged as a flat-rate. "Of course people who drive a lot should pay a lot, too," he said. "In the plan as it stands now, an elderly lady who takes her car out once a month to do some shopping in the next village will be paying the same as a field worker who has to drive 300 kilometers a day - maybe even more, because he has a newer car, and so on paper has lower CO2 emissions."

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