One step forward, one step back

In the past month, California has taken a significant stride forth in the road user charging space by passing bill 1077 in the state senate. Meanwhile, France has taken a giant leap backward by suspending the planned ecotax on HGVs indefinitely. One step forward, one step back.

While the passing of one bill is a long way from final implementation, California has laid its cards on the table and made the case for a comprehensive solution to the widespread problem of declining revenue. The golden state is the most populous and the wealthiest of all U.S. states. More than this, California is a cultural beacon; home to the Knight Rider, Bullitt and Thelma & Louise. If the state does press ahead and successfully launch a road user charging scheme in the future the significance would be widespread.

The two systems are not directly comparable although, the challenges posed by vested interests and users inimical to change remain the same. The revenue problem is the same everywhere, but the political challenges can differ. This is as much the case across each U.S. state as it is individual European countries. Users generally recognise the need for additional funds and are happy for everyone else to pay, but not so happy when it may come out of their wallets. Arguably, what the United States has, which Europe does not, is a clear route to follow.

By executing a clear plan and engaging with the public throughout, the Oregon Department of Transportation has beaten a clear path through the long grass for others to follow. The proof of this can be seen in California, Washington and Metro Vancouver – all of whom have expressed a strong interest in the Oregon road user charging model.

There is plenty of encouragement from the European Union towards interoperability, but this does not directly tackle the problem of acceptance. Belgium is showing a great deal of promise in its attempt to launch both a national HGV charge alongside a pilot for light vehicles, but this scheme lacks the commitment to an open architecture which defines the Oregon project.

Other European projects in development include a charge for passenger vehicles in Germany and a mooted extension of the existing system in the Czech Republic. It remains to be seen whether any of these will beat a path of their own.

The recent referendum held in Gothenburg, where residents affirmed their opposition to congestion charging, should remind policymakers everywhere of how delicate the balance of public opinion can be. As Dr Stephen Ladyman, former UK minister for transport, explains: “Politicians have limited room to manoeuvre. Each administration has a window of opportunity where bold initiatives can be taken. This window becomes smaller and smaller with every election.” What will the public allow and when will they allow it are the questions each authority must ask. Get the answer wrong and the outcome is likely to be negative. Point to a clear strategy with proven outcomes and benefits and the task could become much easier.

Article taken from the November 2014 issue of RUC Magazine