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"Quiet start" for Stockholm congestion charge

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10:54 CET+01:00
One stolen transponder, one banner protesting against Stockholm mayor Annika Billström and one attempted sabotage of a payment station - but as far as police were concerned, that was a quiet start to the first day of Stockholm's new congestion charge trial.

The cameras and infra-red beams began their controversial tour of duty at 6.30am on Tuesday morning,

But late on Monday night someone, apparently hoping to avoid paying up to 60 kronor a day, tried to destroy a computer unit in the payment station at Ålkistan, north of Stockholm University.

"First they tried to drill a hole, then they put some flammable material in and lit it," said Kurt-Erik Hansson, at Stockholm police.

Passing security guards spotted the flames. They called the fire brigade but managed to put out the fire with snow before they arrived. The fire had not damaged the computer unit.

At Norrtull another protestor hung up a banner complaining about Stockholm mayor, the Social Democrats' Annika Billström. In her campaign to become city leader, Billström famously declared in a 'read my lips' moment that there would be no congestion charge.

A car park in Vällingby was the site of the first reported theft of a transponder, the device which links the payment station to the driver's bank account for instant payment.

Stockholm's morning papers reported ever-increasing opposition to the scheme, with the latest poll showing 80% of residents against it.

But technically the first few hours passed as planned.

"It's all as expected," said Birger Höök, project manager at the Swedish Roads Agency.

"This is working remarkably well - we haven't had any problems," he told Dagens Nyheter just after 9am.

The reaction from commuters was mixed. With many people still on their Christmas break, pressure on the system today was expected to be relatively light, although there were some reports of extra crowds on public transport.

Eva Voors, a public relations consultant who commutes to her office on Kungsgatan in central Stockholm from Nacka, a suburb in the south-east of the capital, said that the difference was clear.

"Usually my bus is half empty, but at 8.15 this morning at Danvikstull there were a huge number of people on the bus, while the roads outside looked like they would on a Sunday morning."

The trial will last until the end of July, with all motorists with Swedish-registered cars liable to pay to go into or out of central Stockholm.

Around 400,000 drivers around Stockholm have already acquired a transponder and the administrative load will be enormous. Every charge is a tax decision which may be appealed, and the authorities are on high alert for fraud.

In the autumn, Stockholmers will have their say on the congestion charge in a referendum.

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