As was communicated today, September 29, the European Commission is to file a suit to the European Court of Justice against the introduction of a car toll on German autobahns notified by the German Ministry of Transport, Building, and Urban Development back in 2015 (https://www.tagesschau.de/wirtschaft/klage-pkw-maut-101.html). Its rationale is that, simultaneously with the law that introduced the road charging scheme, the German parliament had passed a law that grants the owners of cars registered in Germany a “deduction of the road charge from their annual vehicle tax bill” (http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-16-1456_en.htm) and therewith constitutes a discrimination against drivers from other EU member states.
But how much, political and economic, truth is in the Commission’s accusations? The two arguments central to its complaints are that (1) exclusively German drivers will receive full waivers of the charge and that (2) short-time badges, which are usually purchased by foreigners, are disproportionately expensive (http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/umstrittene-strassennutzungsgebuehr-eu-kommission-verklagt-deutschland-wegen-pkw-maut-1.3184600). Although there cannot be much debate about whether the policy is; in pure price terms; in favour of German drivers or not it is still worthwhile asking two questions, the first being whether actual impacts on the travel behaviour of non-Germans are likely to occur and the second being whether German drivers are likely to be impacted significantly less than non-Germans. If, and only if, both questions were to be affirmed it would be reasonable to speak of true discrimination.
In his 2008 study Australian researcher, Todd Litman, summarises that drivers’ price elasticity for short-time road charges ranges between -0.21 and -0.83 (http://people.uwec.edu/jamelsem/268/handouts/unit1/transportation_elasticities_victoria.pdf). Simply speaking, this is equivalent to stating that for every unit of payment (say, for instance, €1 per km) the short-term road charge is increased drivers are willing to drive between 21% and 83% less in distance than without the increase. Conceding that the exact effect of road pricing partly depends on the type of toll applied, Litman still proceeds to state that in certain cases road traffic may be reduced by 6% to 15% upon introduction of road charges. Presuming the correctness of his analysis we might then conclude that indeed non-German drivers’ travel behaviour might be significantly altered by the car toll.
On the other hand, research by Douglass B. Lee, Jr. (http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.278.6446&rep=rep1&type=pdf) makes it clear that there is more to alterations in highway travel behaviour than merely road tolls. The author identifies as many as seven behaviourally relevant parameters that can only jointly be used to assess policy effects on drivers’ travel behaviour, a decisive one being the tax on petrol. Given the current political debate in Germany about a mechanism that automatically adapts the tax on petrol to drops in the level of fuel prices (http://www.faz.net/aktuell/wirtschaft/energiepolitik/dobrindt-lehnt-automatische-steuererhoehung-fuer-benzin-ab-14388981.html), it seems severely questionable that German drivers will be dramatically favoured as compared to their European neighbours.
As far as the German Minister of Transport, Alexander Dobrindt, is convinced the planned reform is “in conformity with European law” (https://www.tagesschau.de/wirtschaft/klage-pkw-maut-101.html; translated by the author). The above insights provided, it remains yet open for scientific discussion whether the measure is fair towards other members of the European Union, and whether its economic benefits will outweigh its drawbacks.