For the privilege of driving on Germany’s speedy autobahn, Chancellor Angela Merkel plans to charge everyone, except Germans. After weeks of negotiations, Merkel’s conservative bloc and the Social Democrats agreed to levy a toll for using the country’s highways as part of a deal to form a governing coalition.
While details remain vague before they take power, which will be after Social Democrat party members vote on the agreement by Dec. 12, the one clear stipulation is that the tax shouldn’t result in additional costs for Germans.
The plan has unleashed a backlash. Drivers from neighboring countries say Germany is undermining Europe’s open borders. Even locals question the point of a targeted toll, which would raise about 260 million euros ($352 million), according to an estimate from German car club ADAC, because it would do little to cover costs to upgrade aging infrastructure.
“We have made Europe into a place with the free flow of traffic and now we really threaten this,” said Mike Pinckaers, a spokesman for Dutch drivers’ association ANWB. If Germany starts such a toll, other countries could follow suit, creating divisions and potentially “eroding the European spirit.”
“German drivers are paying almost everywhere in Europe and that’s why it’s only fair when foreign drivers pay on Germany roads,” said Juergen Fischer, a spokesman for the Christian Social Union, which backs the toll and is a sister party to Merkel’s CDU. “We need new sources of finance to retain and further improve our good transport infrastructure.”
Germany was a transport pioneer when it opened Europe’s first car-only freeway in 1921 in Berlin. The freewheeling autobahn, which often doesn’t have a speed limit, has spurred a motoring culture, helping BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Porsche dominate the market for high-end cars.
That legacy of speed is in jeopardy as money spent on roads, bridges, railways and public transport has fallen in real terms or stagnated over the past two decades, while passenger traffic has climbed 27 % and freight use has soared 75 %, according to data from the Environment Ministry and German economic researcher DIW.