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Stockholm tolls face uncertain future

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14:14 CEST+02:00
On Monday night the signs will be taken down and the cameras will be switched off: the six-month trial of Stockholm's congestion charging scheme is coming to an end.

The scheme cost 3.8 billion kronor to set up, and has brought in revenues of around 400 million kronor, much less than expected.

On 17th September, the same day as the general election, voters in the Swedish capital will get the chance to decide whether the tax should be reintroduced.

If they vote no, the billions spent on one of the most technologically advanced congestion charging systems in the world will have gone to waste.

However, the chances of a no vote seem to be receding.

The charge (which is technically a tax), has succeeded in its main aim - to reduce traffic in the capital. Traffic in the city centre is down between 20 and 25 percent, according to official estimates. At the same time, 74,000 more people used public transport to come in and out of the city in June 2006 than in June 2005.

"From a technical perspective, I certainly think you can call it a success," says Gunnar Söderholm, head of the Stockholm Trials office, which is responsible for evaluating the charge.

"Very few have refused to pay, people have understood how the system works, and the system that IBM built has been very good. In terms of the effect on traffic, the political aims have been met, and even exceeded, with traffic coming in and out of the city down by 22 percent. The Essingeled [bypass road] has coped very well."

The apparent success of the charge appears to be winning over voters.

According to a poll of Stockholm residents carried out in June for Stockholm City Council's congestion charge office, 52 percent of voters plan to vote yes, with only 40 percent planning to vote against.

"We're seeing big changes in attitudes. Last fall, there were twice as many people against the trial as were for it. Now a large majority think that it was good that we did the trial, and more than half are in favour of keeping the charge," says Söderholm.

A vote in favour would certainly prove a relief for Annika Billström, the Social Democratic mayor of Stockholm. She was voted in on a platform of opposition to congestion charging, but she was trumped humiliatingly by her party colleagues in central government, who imposed the tax on her from above after giving in to demands from the Green Party.

But the residents of the city are not the only people with a view. Outside the city limits, in Stockholm's commuter belt, the charge is less popular. People living in the communities near to Stockholm are evenly divided, with 46 percent in favour and 46 percent against the charge. In some areas, opposition is much greater than that. Hardly surprising - car ownership is much greater in the suburbs, and while many areas have good train and bus links to the city, people in other districts are entirely dependent on cars to get into town.

The charge inspires anger in many suburban opponents.

"The congestion charge was failure for democracy – the way it was introduced was the least democratic event in Sweden's history," says Leif Bergmark, a Moderate Party councillor in Solna, where opposition to the charge is strong.

He insists that he is not against a congestion charge in principle, but says that there needs to be a proper ring road round Stockholm, and dismisses the official version that the Essingeled has worked well.

"When we have a proper ring road, then the congestion charge will be OK. The Essingeled has not coped."

Like many other councillors in the region he will be campaigning to get the charge rejected in a referendum in Solna on election day.

"Many people see certain benefits with the congestion charge, but they don't appreciate the way the Socialists introduced it - like an old Soviet dictatorship," he says.

Some 17 municipalities in the Stockholm region are holding referendums in September, none of which are legally binding. Even the 'official' referendum in Stockholm is only advisory. Annika Billström and the Social Democratic central government have promised to respect the result of the Stockholm vote, while vowing to ignore plebiscites elsewhere in the region. But come September 18th, both Billström and her party colleagues will be out of the picture if national and local elections give a right-wing majority.

The general election result will prove particularly important. As the original trumping of Billström demonstrated, it is the national government that has the final say, and the opposition Alliance is broadly opposed to the tax.

Olof Petersson, research director at SNS, The Swedish Centre for Business and Policy Studies, says a combination of factors will decide what happens.

"If there's a clear yes in the Stockholm referendum and a Social Democrat majority in parliament and on the council, then it's pretty certain that it will go ahead."

"But if the Alliance win the national election, the suburban councils are going to play a much more important role, and it will be much less certain what will happen. A situation with a no vote in the suburbs, a yes in Stockholm, an Alliance government and a Social Democratic council would leave the outcome uncertain."

"And while the Alliance is broadly against the congestion charge, feelings about it run much less deeply at the national political level," he says.

Whatever happens in the vote, the one certainty is that it will be free to drive into Stockholm for the near future. The Stockholm Trials Office is being wound down, although it will continue to measure traffic levels in the city centre between now and the referendum.

“We think that the earliest the charge could be resumed, in the event of a yes vote, is in March or April next year,” says Gunnar Söderholm.

“But while the cameras will be switched off and we're asking people to hand in their transponders for recycling, the equipment will remain on the roads, waiting for the charge to be made permanent.”

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