Congestion charge proposal ends in rubbish bin

Solution to Copenhagen’s traffic and air-pollution problems pushed off until next year

Extraordinary meetings between top ministers from the Socialistisk Folkeparti (SF) and Socialdemokraterne (S) on Tuesday resulted in the plug being pulled on the Copenhagen congestion charge – a proposal that aimed to diminish traffic jams and air-pollution, while financing lower public transport fares through tolls on cars that come and go from the city.

Instead, the government is now promising to spend a billion kroner to cut ticket prices and raise public transportation standards nationwide – but, crucially, without any penalty on those who drive cars into the city. The financing will now come from higher taxes on leased vehicles.

Addressing the backtrack, PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt wrote on her Facebook page on Wednesday: “The government has listened to the many objections against the congestion charge, even here on this page. It’s made an impact. We have therefore decided to seek another solution to the traffic problems in the capital. We will improve public transport throughout Denmark with a billion extra kroner: 500 million for cheaper tickets; 500 million for investment in new buses, trains and equipment.”

As part of its new plan, the government is also creating a special commission to study Copenhagen’s traffic and air-pollution problems. Their findings, due on 1 January 2013, will supplement several earlier traffic and air-pollution studies that went into the congestion charge proposal.

Berlingske newspaper reported that transport experts were quick to note that half a billion kroner would not go very far towards reducing fares at the national level, as promised.

The experts also noted that the lower fares would not change the habits of drivers – only higher prices on driving would do that, they argued – suggesting that the compromise was more of a political solution for SF and S, than a real traffic solution for Copenhagen.

The congestion charge, in conjunction with reduced fares, was a key political promise by SF – and particularly its leader Villy Søvndal, who appeared in ads before the election promising 40 percent cheaper bus and train fares if voters gave SF and S a win.

Voters did, but when a closer look at the numbers revealed that the congestion charge would bring in less than half the original estimate of 2 billion kroner in revenue – and when local, left-of-centre politicians, business leaders and the opposition, all banded together to block it – S began looking for a way out.

The conflict between S and SF culminated on Tuesday in what the media was billing as a “crisis meeting”, with commentators noting that their apparent inability to solve their differences behind closed doors exposed a lack of cohesion and weak leadership.

“Every Dane now knows there is internal friction inside this government,” Berlingske's political commentator Thomas Larsen said. “First and foremost, Helle Thorning-Schmidt has failed as the prime minister to contain this conflict and lay the groundwork for an internal compromise.”

Rasmus Jønsson, a political commentator and professor at Roskilde University, agreed that the situation reflected poorly on the ministers.

“The government itself is to blame for this circus, because all the politicians in the cabinet have been willing to comment on it,” he told Politiken newspaper.

The third coalition partner, the Radikale (R), sidestepped the negotiations. R leader, Margrethe Vestager, declined to take sides, but after it was announced that the congestion charge had been scrapped, the party's traffic spokesperson, Andreas Steenberg, called it a “wise” decision.

R was ready to support an alternative proposal based on GPS roadpricing – a new technology that charges drivers by how far and where they drive, instead of every time they cross a boundary – Steenberg said, noting that the opposition parties Venstre and Konservative had already expressed their support for the alternative.

On Wednesday morning, Søvndal – who perhaps had the most to lose from the congestion charge proposal’s failure – spun it as a win for SF and the people.

“It isn’t a broken promise. We fought just like we promised we would. And we won a bigger prize than you expected from your analyses. I think we deserve some credit for that,” he told public broadcaster TV2.

The discounted public transport fares will come into effect across Denmark on 1 January 2013. However, there will not be the 40 percent discount once promised.

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