Saturday, 25 February 2012

Salzburg seeks vignette exemption for local motorways

The state of Salzburg, Austria has two major transport policy issues according to the Salzburg Times. You see it borders with Germany. The border is open as both Austria and Germany are EU Member States and signatories to the Schengen Convention, which removed border control among many EU Member States.

In Germany, the state of Bavaria (which borders Salzburg) is unhappy with noise from Salzburg airport, only 2 km from the border. Since 2001, low cost airlines have increased flights there and residents in Bavaria have complained about overflying jets. That issue isn’t a concern for this blog.

Motorways approaching and half circling city of Salzburg

However, it is being linked to the roads. You see the most convenient route to Salzburg is on the autobahn which connects the border to a half ring route to the west of the city. The city is keen on attracting visitors from Germany given its heritage as Mozart’s birthplace, but the autobahn is not free.

Austria’s motorway network is owned and operated by a state owned company called ASFINAG. It charges all vehicles under 3.5 tonnes to access it network by requiring a purchase of a vignette. A vignette enables the vehicle to use almost the entire motorway network in Austria for a set period. The cheapest is 8 Euros for 10 days (ranging to 77.80 for a year). As a result, this puts off visitors from Germany unwilling to pay what appears to be a toll for an occasional visit. Some use the parallel local network increasing traffic through residential areas.

According to Austrian Times, the state of Salzburg is seeking to convince ASFINAG to make the motorways around Salzburg free of the vignette to encourage visitors and remove traffic from parallel routes. The hope is that by making it easier to access Salzburg (and Salzburg airport), it will offset complaints about airport noise from the German side. The state is intending to pay ASFINAG to compensate for the loss of revenue.

It raises a few questions. First, whether ASFINAG will be keen to have the user pays principle eroded for the sake of local political/economic considerations. Setting a formula for revenue replacement could be controversial, as ASFINAG will want some compensation for future growth. Secondly, I assume there is no interest in giving free access to heavy vehicles, which pay a distance based toll on the motorways, as the key point is encouraging tourists.

Thirdly, what sort of precedent does this set for ASFINAG? Will other states or cities seek a similar dispensation (if they pay for it)?

Fourthly, what happens if Germany introduces a vignette or toll for private cars? Would the expectation be reciprocity or would it make such a concession for German visitors controversial for being one sided?

Finally, are there other solutions?

For example, if ASFINAG had a vignette for a shorter period that 10 days, say 4 days or even ideally 1 day, then visitors could pay less than 8 Euros making a short trip more affordable.

Another solution would be to charge a toll rather than a vignette. As heavy vehicles already pay a toll (based on distance using a DSRC system with on board tag), such a system for cars would mean the toll would be low for such a short visit.

ASFINAG is a commercial company with all of its shares owned by the Federal Government, so I suspect it will choose to take a commercial approach. I think a shorter period vignette may be a better approach, as this would address visitors in multiple locations around Austria. This wouldn’t address the airport noise issue, but then that isn’t ASFINAG’s issue – it simply needs revenue to maintain the motorway network.

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