Friday 3 December 2021

Brussels City Region Congestion/Road User Charge might be implemented in 2024?

Around a year ago I reported that the Brussels Capital-Region Government (which is one of the federal regions of the Kingdom of Belgium) was planning to introduce road user charging (RUC), specifically a distance, time and location based RUC for all light vehicles registered in and driving in the Brussels Capital-Region. Prices would vary by engine size (and it wouldn't apply to heavy vehicles because Belgium already has a national heavy vehicle RUC system). That was to start with a pilot called Smartmove, but ultimately lead to replacement of the very high annual vehicle registration fees in Brussels, with RUC. Charges would be applied to all public roads except the ring motorway and some park and ride access roads at the periphery.

Brussels City-Region zone for RUC

It is interesting for three reasons:

  1. It is the latest attempt to introduce distance-based RUC for light-vehicles in Europe, replacing an existing tax (there have arguably been several attempts, notably in the Netherlands, Finland and the UK). So far no European jurisdiction has introduced distance-based RUC for light vehicles (but it does exist in two US states, one Australian state and New Zealand, in all cases for only a subset of the light vehicle fleet).
  2. It seeks to combine RUC with a form of congestion charging, by varying distance by time of day and location.  The time of day factor is intended to charge higher rates for peak time travel, and the location factor being that only distance travelled within the Brussels Capital-Region would be subject to a fee.
  3. Smartmove intends to pioneer using smartphones as a means of identifying and measuring vehicle trips. This has not been successful elsewhere to date, primarily because of the difficulties in ensuring that the phone is always linked to the vehicle, and the vehicle always has a smartphone operating to measure and report trip data. 
There is a project website, but in English (and Flemish and French) at least it still has dates that are now unrealistic.

Covid 19 has delayed progress, so that earlier this year it was reported in the Brussels Times that it would not be implemented until 2024, noting there is considerable opposition from neighbouring regions Wallonia and Flanders (primarily because RUC would apply to residents from those regions entering Brussels, but they would not receive a reduction in registration fees). Other regions feared variously that it would be a "tax grab" from their residents, and that it could creation additional congestion on the uncharged ring road (which seems unlikely, given it is likely to reduce overall demand for driving in Brussels - and experience in both Stockholm and London with exempting boundary or bypass routes is that the net effect on such roads is neutral). 

Delays have cost money, as the Brussels Government was anticipating €250 million per annum in net revenue from the programme from next year (which clearly indicates that even after drastically reducing vehicle registration fees, RUC makes more money because it is charging vehicles from outside the region), and is now having to make budget savings to make up the difference. 

There have been legal challenges, with the Council of State (Federal Government) authorising the Brussels City-Region to introduce RUC, but only after it has consulted with Wallonia and Flanders.  The Minister-President of the Region has indicated legislation to implement it would not be introduced during the current Parliamentary term.  Brussels is authorised to proceed only with taxes that are not already the competence of the Federal Government, but the Viapass heavy vehicle RUC system is already implemented by all three regions. Also with a congestion pricing element, it is not just about revenue.

Brussels must do "everything it can to reach a co-operation agreement" with the other regions to prevent or limit possible discriminatory situations. Obviously the easiest solution would be for ALL regions to implement a similar policy, but that's unlikely at present.  However, it is NOT mandatory for Brussels to reach such an agreement, according to an article in L'Echo (French).

All of this means it is far from certain whether it is proceed. The next regional election is 2024 and there is limited political enthusiasm for the policy in the current government. This leaves aside testing the technology and its feasibility.

My bet is that the odds are that, at most, this will be a trial, because until the trial is implemented and runs, there won't be enough political support.

Of course separate to all of this is the gradual erosion of Federal fuel tax revenue because of the growth in hybrid and electric vehicles, but none of that revenue goes directly to the Brussels City-Region Government.  However, that issue really does require all of the Regions and the Federal Government to co-operate.

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