Stockholmers to vote on road charge

Stockholm residents will vote Sunday on whether to introduce a permanent congestion charge after a trial period that went down well with city dwellers but exasperated suburban commuters.

Opinion polls suggest that Stockholmers will give the green light to the project, after initial opposition appears to have given way to increasingly positive reactions following the trial earlier this year.

The referendum will coincide with Sweden’s legislative elections, expected to give Social Democrats their toughest challenge yet after 12 years in power. If approved, the congestion tax would be introduced in March or April 2007, following similar systems in London, Rome and Singapore.

A test period from January 3 until July 31 far exceeded the government’s expectations of a 10 to 15 percent reduction of cars entering and leaving the capital, registering instead an average fall of between 20 and 25 percent.

A Temo institute survey conducted in August among those living within the toll area showed that 51 percent plan to vote “yes” to the tax, up from 44 percent in a similar survey conducted in March.

“The effects of the trial have been so evident that people have been able to form their own opinion … of how the system worked,” the city planning chief responsible for the trial, Gunnar Söderholm, told AFP.

“It is extremely encouraging that people are prepared to reflect and consider the argument … and change their opinion,” Söderholm added.

Among those in favour of the charge is Maj, an elderly commuter on the Stockholm metro who asked that her last name not be used.

“At first I was very against (the charge) but now I wonder what else they can do to get rid of all the queues of cars in town,” she told AFP.

But support for the scheme among those living outside the inner city is weak.

“Many people living out of town are dependent on their cars, especially people in areas where public transport is not good,” Swedish Automobile Association spokesman Berndt Sehlstedt told AFP.

Carl Johan Bratt, who lives in the suburb of Lidingoe, drove to work every day during the trial.

“I pay (the toll) because I can afford it, but I am against it in principle. (Swedes) already pay so many taxes,” Bratt said.

During the trial, all vehicles except taxis, buses, electric cars, hybrid vehicles and foreign-registered cars that entered or exited central Stockholm on weekdays during the peak hours of 6:30 am to 6:29 pm were required to pay the levy.

Motorists paid between 10 and 20 kronor, depending on the time of day they passed a toll station, with an upper limit of 60 kronor a day.

Cameras filmed motorists passing the toll stations and a small transponder mounted on the car’s windshield enabled the charge to be automatically debited from the motorist’s bank account.

Since the toll stations were turned off at the close of the trial on July 31, car traffic in and out of the capital shot back up to exceed the pre-trial level of around half a million cars a day, according to official estimates.

While the result of the referendum in Stockholm city is not binding, both the ruling Social Democrats and their parliamentary allies and the centre-right opposition alliance have agreed to respect the result.

Nicholas Chipperfield