Thursday 21 July 2011

Budapest mulling congestion charging

According to two reports from Budapest Business Journal (BBJ), there is an increased likelihood that the City of Budapest will implement some form of congestion charging in the next few years, primarily for budgetary reasons.

In January, it was reported by BBJ that the Mayor's chief financial advisor, János Atkári, said urgent steps would need to be taken to avoid the city becoming bankrupt by 2012. This included congestion charging. The key financial problem being the ongoing heavy losses for the city's public transport system, and the financial commitment to expand its metro.  In June, BBJ reported that when the Metro 4 line starts operation, Budapest is legally obliged by the EU to commence a congestion charging system.   With the Metro expected to be completed no later than 2015, a charge would start at the same time.  Work undertaken for the city previously indicated that revenue could be HUF13 billion (US$68.7 million) p.a., presumably based on a modelled charge of between US$2 and US$4 per vehicle.

The Mayor has also indicated (according to ITS International) that:

New park-and-ride (P+R) car parks will need to be opened, the number 1 and 3 tram lines will need to be extended and the city's parking system will need to be unified.

Certainly Budapest does get severe congestion, as car ownership has soared and people have preferred the freedom of driving to the city's albeit well developed public transport network.   The dramatic decline in patronage for the public transport system due to increased car ownership has been accelerated by the increase in congestion slowing down buses and trams (where they do not have exclusive right of way).  In effect, charging for driving into Budapest should boost patronage and help ease revenues for the public transport system.

My question is whether Budapest is best served by a small cordon/area charge, by having charges on vehicles transiting the city (but not using motorways), or in a wider approach to be taken to charge vehicles by distance across the country.   There have been firm proposals in the past to charge heavy vehicles by distance (they are now charged by the day on motorways only, along with cars), which have been stymied by government indecision and reluctance to use international consultants.  I can hope that Budapest thinks carefully about any new system to avoid boundary distortions, minimise operating costs, maximise economic benefits and be able to be integrated into any wider road pricing options.   However, it is clear that Budapest is further ahead on its thinking in road pricing than other capitals in the former socialist bloc countries.

The biggest barrier for Budapest is that national law does not give the city the legal authority to introduce a congestion charge, so the matter will be up to central government first.  However, I would have thought concerns over the potential bankruptcy of the capital would be a strong motivator (along with the clear issue of high levels of congestion in downtown Budapest, with pre-existing good public transport alternatives).

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