Lost: Dutch Courage

On 12 November 2009, Ferry Smith, a senior representative of the Royal Dutch Touring Club, ANWB (similar to the CAA or AAA) spoke at a Toronto conference called Transport Futures, in support of the Dutch road user charging (RUC) program, called "Kilometerheffing" (kilometer-pricing) or as his talk and the Dutch program was titled in English: “Paying Differently for Mobility”.

Just hours before a decisive vote was to be cast by the Dutch Parliament, Mr. Smith talked about how much effort and collaboration had gone into this programme, especially related to the supportive efforts of the ANWB.

Although confident the vote would pass, he admitted it was not guaranteed. Someone asked what he thought would happen next if the vote failed. His answer: “We’d be set back 10 years”, meaning the effort would start all over and they would take until 2020 to regain the place they were now.

Later that day, the vote passed making the Dutch road pricing system a virtual certainty.

On 20 February 2010, the Dutch government collapsed ostensibly over a military issue (troop withdrawal from Afghanistan). With it came a complete freeze of the “Kilometerheffing” system. Transport staff reassigned, consultants laid off.  All thrust instantly into suspended animation.

Remembering what Ferry Smith had said, and noting that the number of delayed, withdrawn or canceled RUC programs in the EU had outnumbered the deployed ones, I wrote a rhetorical piece about Governments not being able to toll roads on 24 June 2010.

At the end of September 2010, the new Dutch coalition government released its plan. The big picture is reduced administration, reduced social programming, reduced arts and culture, new restrictions on immigration, burqas and forced marriages, reduced defence, development and payments to the EU, increased law-and-order by way of increased penalties and more officers, some adjustments in education and a break in business taxes.

The road-pricing matter was delegated to the fine print and finally buried:

“There will be no road pricing. Instead, the variable cost of driving is increased through fuel tax. The fixed costs are reduced proportionately. The government is investing 500 million euros in infrastructure, both roads and rail”.
Talk of a new superhighway is included, all while neighbouring Belgium was talking of a copy-cat kilometerheffing system. Quelle honte!

So begins the Ferry Smith Decade in the Nederlands.



To be fair, while the Dutch fuel-tax-fixed-tax swap is revenue neutral (that hopeful prayer and false-hope offering to the voter) it does have the driver notice the new road-use charge for the first three or four weeks, at least. Vehicle kilometres traveled will recover almost immediately – and I do mean this in terms of mere weeks.  While drivers sigh with relief, they will have no relief.  Nothing will change. Both their pocketbooks and their congested roads will remain unchanged.

There is an odd added perk: increased speed limits.  Like offering free candy to a diabetic. One disappointed, anonymous, online pundit adds: “I will only be able to speed late at night when the roads are not congested.”  Darwin award, for sure, since I suspect he may drink first in celebration.

Another comic side effect is that the expression “kilometerheffing” originally imbued with some affection by the road-use charge promoters has been cheaply appropriated to describe the new fuel tax increase and fixed tax decrease.

All government doublespeak.  Orwell by not being Orwell.

I have no bone to pick with the new coalition government agenda. The conservative-liberal agenda ebbs and flows will always continue. Rather I point out that this is just more evidence that Departments of Transport cannot directly approach an all-at-once tax shift from the congestion-blind fuel tax to the congestion-sensitive road-use-charge. There is never sufficient time in a single administration of a democratic nation, and there is almost never sufficient continuity of courage or vision.  Ex-Transport Minister, Eurlings (Nederlands), may have had this courage-vision combination and even the benign support of his then-government, but to design a solution that could not proceed
in-progress and automatically into a subsequent administration is the kiss of death. Look at the Brits. They swap out Secretary of Transport (a posting that is evidentially a way-station to a better portfolio) almost annually. No one holding such a temporary position and who needs some degree of acceptability lest they remain stuck in the post, would dare stick out his neck (Alistair Darling excepted, but that was before Britain’s most effective road-pricing voice, Peter Roberts, soured the whole thing – now the DfT works under more secrecy than does the CIA – so goes Roberts’ brand of uninformed democracy). I am not faulting the DfT. I am commending them for finding a way to proceed. AND I mourn the loss of intelligent debate.

The only way to avoid this quagmire is to approach the eventual shift by building the charging platform by other means. Note that one of the more repeated online comments on hearing that the Dutch road-pricing system will be replaced by a fuel-tax hike was “good thing, because a fuel-tax hike will save all those billions on a road-pricing system.”  Here is a way to proceed


On 2010.10.07 13:30, Paolo Pezzotta commented:
As you know from my posting when you first noted the likelihood of Dutch national VMT [TDP] tolling, I noted that there was a vast difference in truck tolling home-based-vehicle (auto) tolling. These are vastly different markets serving vastly different functions relative to the economy and urban systems and the politics are consequently vastly different. You thought it was a slam dunk. I thought it might provide some surprises. I was right.

We all should catch on this and try to learn something from this fact.

You are confusing two very different things. Cordon pricing schemes do in fact push folks off the road (predominately lower income folks)- that is their function, see London and Stockholm plans. VMT pricing will do the same. Less cars will “go through” as a result. That is the objective. Neither will provide sufficient funding to meet a market’s needs. Both will massively misallocate capital. The public knows what it is doing. It is the technocrats that need to come up to speed.

These notions should be abandoned. Driver based funding strategies have done a great deal of damage, institutionally, physically, competitively.

Paolo -- Jerry is right that CP can provide faster, safer, cleaner trips to more (not fewer) vehicles.  BUT that is only when the schema is designed to move the trips to off-peak times.  The problem is that we have a Secretary of Transportation who used the phrase "coerce drivers out of their cars". Incidents like this tell me that even people who should understand CP, do not. -- Bern

On 2010.10.07 03:06, Jerry Bridgman commented: 
The weary, angry cynicism of the cited blogs may be hiding from you the possibility the CP product you are offering is deficient! Ideally reducing congestion would provide faster, safer, cleaner trips to more (not fewer) vehicles. Engineer that and you might have a salable product.

    On 2010.10.06 11:45, Allen Greenberg commented:
    I appreciate your highlighting of the near-impossibility of implementing a mileage-based user fee system within the single term of a political champion.  I had not thought of it quite that way, but it makes perfect sense, and thus—as you note--alternatives need to be sought.

    On 2010.10.06, 09:05 Jack Opiola commented:
    I am afraid you give Alastair Darling too much credit. After the debacle of Byers, his predecessor over the Hatfield Train accident and the reneging on the Public Trust set up for the rail network in the UK, PM Darling was posted to Transport to keep it out of the press and put a tight lid on Transport. He was magnificently effective in positively doing absolutely nothing in his tenure as Transport Minister, which is probably why they rewarded him with Treasury where he again efficaciously provided negative value to the post and the UK.

    I am afraid you misread his actions. By consolidating the HMCE efforts for truck tolling into a larger UK road pricing agenda, he was killing it, not promoting it. His Deputy Minister was released to promote the technology investigation but the PM with stodgy  influences could never see outfitting 33 million vehicles with any technology, let alone a GNSS or DSRC hybrid for road pricing.

    The £49 billion in fuel excise tax annually is a treasure chest that Treasury will never surrender. After all, less than half returns to Transport (all transport) and the rest funds Government's other platforms.

    I am afraid the poor (literally)  British drivers are already overtaxed with a blunt financial instrument that fails to address congestion, limit car usage nor provide sufficient supply-side measures to address the manifest problems. Whilst Mr. Peter Roberts may be misplaced in his expression of love for motoring, his outrage may be better targeted to express exasperations at a government that continues to rip off its drivers and pay them back for their contribution with niggardly transport policies and practices. While a VMT approach - that is an approach that replaces the fuel excise tax with a fair, equitable, reliable and sustainable solution - may be the solution, I cannot envisage the past or current UK Politicians ever giving up the goose that is providing such a wonderful golden eggs as provided by the gas tax.


    Michael Cornford said...

    Yawn - Someday someone will write a pro road pricing piece without resorting to petty insults, straw man arguments or negative stereotyping. Its unlikely to be on this blog though

    Bern Grush said...


    My apologies, Peter. Please write one without insults, straw man arguments or negative stereotyping, send it to me and I will publish it here.

    Rational Transport said...

    A significant limitation on fuel tax is that the European Union has a Directive which limits the range within which fuel tax can be charged. It will be interesting to see how high it can go without breaching this.

    Bern Grush said...

    Rational: Thanks, can you name the directive? Even a URL? I'd like to read it.

    libertyscott said...

    Bern, apologies it sets a lower limit, not a ceiling.

    Directive 2003/96/EC