As the government prepares for a showdown with Deutsche Telekom and DaimlerChrysler over their consortium's defective national toll system, truck drivers begin a grassroots boycott.
Called "simple and practical" by its planners, the toll system has proved anything but.
The planners of Germany’s new toll system for heavy trucks wanted to create a model high-tech system that deployed satellites, dashboard computers, toll bridges and payment machines to collect some €2.8 billion ($3.3 billion) a year without the burden of expensive employees. Instead, it’s proven to be an expensive headache at a time when the German government is running up a record budget deficit.
Originally slated for operation in August, the defective system now has no launch date in sight, and blame is being thrown in all directions.
Truckers boycott system
The German truck drivers’ association disclosed over the weekend that most shipping companies have all but abandoned the system and say they won’t participate again until Toll Collect, the consortium led by Deutsche Telekom and DaimlerChrysler behind the expensive project, and the government deliver a working system. The government, meanwhile, has threatened to sue Toll Collect and cancel its contract.
"Shipping companies have stopped installing the toll system and are not replacing defective appliances with new ones," said Karlheinz Schmidt, president of the German Transport and Disposal Association (BGL), according to the Bild am Sonntag newspaper. Schmidt said a recent survey taken by his organization found that only one in 15 of the onboard toll computers was functioning. "Why should we participate in a test run when the technology is still defective? I’m only going to take part again until the system’s working," he said.
Shipping companies are also clashing with Toll Collect, the consortium of companies responsible for implementing the ambitious highway tolls. "They haven’t planned these tests very reasonably," said Sebastian Lechner, head of BGL’s Bavarian branch, according to the paper. "It’s still completely unclear when and how the next test phase is supposed to begin. It changes from day to day."
Starting from scratch?
BGL’s Schmidt said he didn’t believe the truck toll could be implemented by the new Easter target date unless the government, parliament and the toll consortium stop their bickering and deliver concrete results. "Toll Collect's partner firms, DaimlerChrysler and Deutsche Telekom, need to find money and begin planning the system again from the ground up," Schmidt said.
German Transportation Minister Manfred Stolpe (photo) of the Social Democrats recently conceded that he had become aware of the full extent of problems with Toll Collect one month before the system’s planned nationwide introduction in August. "The full explosiveness of the situation first became apparent during the summer," Stolpe said. "Prior to that, there had been different statements about small deficiencies, but it only became obvious in July that the whole system wasn’t ready for service."
Stolpe also said the government would seek the highest possible compensation during negotiations with Toll Collect. "We’re going to look at the contract for possible penalties and we’ll also be discussing lost revenues," Stolpe told the Tagesspiegel am Sonntag newspaper.
The transportation minister recently revealed that an exit clause exists in the contract, and he has begun publicly toying with the idea of terminating the government’s contract with Toll Collect.
"We have several cancellation dates that are dependent on development progress," he said. Stolpe estimated the government would lose €900 million ($1 billion) in revenues if the system isn’t implemented until early next year.
Given the staggering revenue loss, a number of parliamentarians have called for the full disclosure of the contract – a move that could increase public pressure on the government to seek damages from Toll Collect. So far, the companies have not released the document, but a statement is expected on Tuesday.
Toll Collect faces fines
Toll Collect has ruled out the possibility of being held responsible for the government’s lost revenues. A spokesman for the consortium said there have "neither been talks about penalty demands nor a basis for doing so." But the company could be forced to pay €250,000 ($292,000) a day in fines if the system isn’t in operation by January.
The project’s first casualty could be Michael Rummel, Toll Collect’s chief executive. The newsweekly Der Spiegel reported this week that representatives of the consortium were negotiating the termination of his contract, but Toll Collect refuse to confirm the report when questioned by the public broadcaster ARD.
Until the system is fixed, the government estimates it will lose €154 million ($180 million) for each month the tolls remain uncollected.