Merkel Toll to End Free Autobahn Rides for Passenger Cars

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government plans to make foreigners driving on Germany’s autobahns pay as much as 130 euros ($164) a year, ending free use of the highways for passenger cars.

The proposal unveiled today marks a concession by Merkel to Bavarian allies in her coalition government who are complaining about road tolls collected by Switzerland and Austria. Owners of German-registered cars would be able to deduct the toll from their vehicle tax.

Making foreigners pay to use Europe’s biggest national highway network “fills a fairness gap,” Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt told reporters in Berlin. He cited tolls in neighboring countries and pressure to make users pay for upkeep.

Germany’s plan, billed as an “infrastructure surcharge,” coincides with a drive across the European Union to drum up finance for public-works projects and ward off an economic slump. “User-model” financing for building roads “has a future in Europe,” Dobrindt said.

EU regulators said it’s too early to determine whether the German plan breaches the bloc's non-discrimination rules.

“We will need to see and assess the final legislative text,” Helen Kearns, transport spokeswoman at the European Commission, the 28-nation EU’s regulatory arm in Brussels, said today by e-mail.

Germany pioneered the autobahn during the Nazi era. Unfettered by a blanket speed limit, the autobahn is an attraction for drivers from across the world and a publicity tool for German high-end carmakers such as Bayerische Motoren Werke AG and Volkswagen AG’s Porsche and Audi brands.

The toll, which requires approval by German lawmakers, will take effect 2016, according to an outline for the legislation e-mailed by the Transport Ministry.

Bavarian Demand

The blueprint had a bumpy start earlier this year. Germany’s ADAC motoring club, Europe’s largest with about 18 million members, urged Merkel not to load more costs on drivers and keep car rides on highways free.

Budget strains already led to Germany introducing a truck toll in 2005 amid a surge of goods traffic across its nine borders, the most of any European nation. The program will be extended to other German roads in coming years, Dobrindt said.

Dobrindt’s Christian Social Union, the Bavarian affiliate of Merkel’s Christian Democrats, made the road toll a condition for backing the government policy agenda for her third-term coalition last year. The CSU contrasted the free autobahn use by Swiss and Austrians living just across the border with the tolls in force in those two countries.

German Drivers

That forced Merkel, who had run on a no-new-taxes platform, to find a way to offset the tolls for German drivers.

“What we can see is that we’re standing by the conditions as we laid them out in the coalition treaty,” she told reporters in Berlin today. “German auto drivers will not be additionally burdened. That was my main point.”

The toll will gross as much 3.7 billion euros ($4.7 billion) annually, Dobrindt said. Costs estimated at 195 million euros to administer the plan and a rebate of 3 billion euros to drivers will trim the government’s net gain to 500 million euros, he said.

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