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A Ticket to Drive?

Sean SinicoDecember 13, 2006

A debate surrounding tolls on German highways has broken out again, and while Bavarian politicians continue pushing for an autobahn vignette, the federal government says it's out of the question.

Only commercial trucks currently need to pay to drive on Germany's highway networkImage: AP

As the German state that suffers most from "gas tank tourism" -- the practice of filling up in neighboring countries where a liter of gasoline can cost up to 20 euro cents less (about $1 per gallon) -- appeals for a German automobile toll often comes out of Bavaria.

Markus Söder, general secretary of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, raised the southern German state's second call this year for drivers to buy a 100-euro window sticker before pulling up to the on-ramp.

"It's not normal that foreign motorists pay nothing for the use of our roads," Söder told the mass-market Bild am Sonntag newspaper. "Elsewhere in Europe, they always have to pay."

The vignette sticker model, which seven countries including Austria, the Czech Republic and Switzerland also use, would be accompanied by lowering Germany's petroleum and motor vehicle taxes as a way of charging foreign cars for using German roads and discouraging gas tank tourism by lowering fuel prices in Germany.

Mercedes and BMW outnumber Fiat and Renault

Auto mit österreichischen Vignetten in München
Seven European countries use a vignette toll systemImage: picture alliance/dpa

But only a dramatic, and unlikely, cut in the fuel tax would compensate drivers for a 100-euro windshield sticker, according to Andreas Hölzel a spokesman for the ADAC, Germany's largest automobile club.

"We are not aware of a case where the tax was so drastically cut that gas tank tourism would be affected," Hölzel said, adding that of all the cars on German highways, only 5 percent have foreign license plates, making the costs of maintaining a vignette system higher than the revenue it would bring in.

While a windshield sticker is the most commonly debated model in Germany, 10 European countries, including France, Italy, Spain and Poland, charge drivers based on the distance they travel instead of an annual fee, which makes considerably more sense, according to Hartmut Topp of the Institute for Mobility and Traffic at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern.

"A vignette is a crazy idea that encourages people to drive more in order to lower the cost per kilometer," he said. "What makes sense is a distance-based toll system."

Truck tolls difficult to expand

LKA ohne Maut Mautstelle
The truck toll system started in 2005, about a year later than plannedImage: AP

While a similar system that was setup for heavy commercial trucks using the autobahn was plagued with delays and lost revenue when it launched in 2005, it is now running well, Topp said.

But enlarging the satellite system that keeps track of about 1 million trucks on highways to encompass Germany's 44 million registered automobiles on all streets is unrealistic and doesn't make sense when the state already has the money it needs for road projects, according Hölzel.

Of the 53 billion euros collected from fuel and motor vehicle tax receipts as well as revenue from the truck toll system, about 17 billion are spent on Germany's road network, he said, calling on the government to invest money car owners pay in taxes into street projects.

While no studies have been conducted to estimate the cost of creating a car toll system, the Toll Collect consortium received seven billion euros from German government to create the truck's toll system. Of the 3.1 billion euros in levies Toll Collect delivered to the government in 2006, it received 600 million euros (from Berlin) to keep the network running.

Safer in the fast lane

Mautstation am Warnowtunnel in Rostock
Tolls are rare in Germany but do exist on some tunnelsImage: picture alliance/dpa

Even if the truck system could be expanded to include cars, a feat Toll Collect officials said may be possible but would require large additional investments, any kind of toll placed exclusively on highways could also lead to heavier traffic on smaller, local roads that tend to have more serious accidents than the highway, Hölzel said.

According to the ADAC estimates, increased traffic on smaller roads could lead to 570 more traffic deaths and 17,000 additional injuries if 20 percent of cars left the highway to get around tolls.

Keeping drivers from moving to toll-free streets is why any automobile toll would have to include all roads, not just highways, Topp said, adding that he, contrary to Hölzel, expects such technology to exist within the next five years.

"At times and in places where there is an especially high demand you can charge an especially high toll, and when there are fewer drivers it can be cheaper," he said.

Toll debate unlikely to disappear

Regardless of how many people they share the road with, German drivers, for the time being, won't have to worry about reaching into their wallets right away. Federal Transportation Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee has ruled out any system of car tolls, saying that none of the newest suggestions he's heard was better than those regularly made in the past.

"Bad arguments do not get better when they are regularly repeated," Tiefensee, a Social Democrat, told reporters.

Despite a lack of unity on implementing a fee system in Berlin, Bavarian politicians have said they will consider possible automobile toll options for Germany, nearly guaranteeing that the debate will come up again in 2007.