Austria road fee `highway robbery'

ADRIAN BRIDGE

Central Europe Correspondent

Plans to introduce an annual motorway fee in Austria have provoked outrage among neighbouring Germans, tens of thousands of whom - including Chancellor Helmut Kohl - take their annual holidays in the Alpine republic.

A spokesman for the Bavarian-based Christian Social Union described the proposed fee as "an offence to our good neighbourly relations", accusing the government in Vienna of "highway robbery".

Germany's Transport Minister, Matthias Wissmann, has gone one step further, describing the fees as an infringement of European Union regulations and delivering a formal protest to the EU transport commissioner, Neil Kinnock. Mr Wissmann believes the system would be discriminatory because non-Austrian drivers using the motorways just once would be charged the same as Austrians using them all the time.

The Austrian transport ministry, which says the revenue raised will go towards building new motorways, has countered by pointing out that although the proposed annual fee from next year will be 550 schillings (pounds 37), there will also be a lower "tourist" fee of 150 schillings (pounds 10) valid for just two months.

Ministry officials also point out that annual motorway fees are already in place in Switzerland and the Czech Republic and that, anyway, they are intended only as a stopgap measure until the completion of an electronically monitored tolling system which will note the frequency and distance of all motorway journeys and bill drivers automatically.

In addition to German anger, Austrian environmentalists have complained that the new charges do not go far enough to deter would-be polluters of Austria's air, while many fear that they could hurt the country's crucial tourist industry.

"Naturally some people initially see it as something of an affront, but when they look at the charges in detail they will see they are very low by Austrian standards," said Hans Muller of the transport ministry.

"These fees are nothing like those charged for ski-lift passes. I don't think they will put people off. And I do not think they will force Chancellor Kohl to re-think his holiday plans," Mr Muller said.

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