Congestion charge is “not perfect” – but it’s coming anyway

PM invites grumblers to come forward with better solutions – if they have them

The debate over a Copenhagen congestion charge flared up again on Wednesday when the prime minister told TV2 News that her plan to implement a toll charge (betalingsring) around the capital city was “not perfect”.

“The government has made a proposal. It is not perfect, but it will solve some of the challenges,” the Socialdemokraterne (S) prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said.

Since October, arguments have raged over whether vehicles should be charged to drive into Copenhagen and, if so, where to place the proposed toll ring. At first the criticism came mainly from the opposition. But after the government released a preliminary drawing showing the proposed borders of the toll ring and then conceded that it could not afford to discount bus and train tickets – as promised during the election campaign – the party faithful began to gripe.

On Wednesday, Thorning-Schmidt welcomed the opposition, as well as critics from the governing partiesÂ’ own ranks, to come forward with their own ideas to improve the plan.

“We are listening to the criticism, of course,” Thorning-Schmidt said.  “But we have to find a solution, and anyone who is against our solution can come forward with suggestions of their own. Right now weÂ’re in the process of listening to everybody who has an interest in this congestion charge. After that, weÂ’ll submit our proposal.”

But instead of praising the PM for showing flexibility, the opposition leaders, Venstre, claimed that Thorning-SchmidtÂ’s statement sounded the death knell for the entire plan.

“When the prime minister is acknowledging that the project is full of problems, I can’t possibly imagine how they expect to push it through parliament,” said Martin Geertsen, Venstre’s spokesperson for the capital region.

“It looks like the initiative is falling apart in the government’s hands. And I hope it does,” added Venstre’s group chairman Kristian Jensen, whose party claims that the congestion charge will slow growth in Copenhagen.

But if the opposition was unrelenting, local mayors and critical members of the governing parties appeared to take more positively to the PMÂ’s remarks.

“I see it as an acknowledgement of the worries that we’ve been expressing,” Rødovre’s mayor Erik Nielsen (S) told Ritzau.

Nielsen is the spokesperson for 15 suburban mayors – many of them from the PM’s party – of councils on the outskirts of Copenhagen, the very councils whose residents may soon have to pay to drive their cars into Copenhagen.

In recent weeks those mayors have been vocal about criticism of the toll ring. They have questioned the proposed borders, and have insisted that the capacity and quality of public transportation must improve before a congestion charge is implemented.

Nielsen expressed hope that the government was now ready to accept some of the mayorsÂ’ demands.

“It’s a really important signal from the prime minister,” he said.

Governing partners Radikale have been accused of not showing complete loyalty to the congestion charge proposal. But after the PMÂ’s statement, Radikale traffic spokesperson Andreas Steenberg announced that a congestion charge was indeed the right solution for the cityÂ’s traffic problems.

“The congestion charge is a good solution … because it gives people a reason to drive at other times of the day or to carpool. Plus it brings in money to improve public transportation,” he said.

However, Steenberg expressed some impatience that the government had not yet managed to publish a report showing how public transportation would be improved or how income from the new tolls would be spent.

“If we would just present the plan for how we are going to improve public transportation between the councils around Copenhagen, I think that many of the surrounding towns would see that it’s a reasonable initiative that will benefit them,” he said.

Socialistisk Folkeparti (SF), the other coalition partner, underscored that the government intended to carry through with the congestion charge, even if the current plan was “not perfect”.

“It’s just a fact that whenever you make such a big change, it creates some inconveniences,” said SF political spokesperson Jesper Petersen. “But the bottom line is that tradesmen and all the others will no longer have to waste thousands of hours waiting in queues whenever they have to drive around in the city.”

The governmentÂ’s far-left ally Enhedslisten also expressed continued support for the congestion charge.

With their support, the government will have the majority it needs to pass the measure – assuming, of course, that it can persuade its own support base that the plan is good enough, despite not being perfect.