Brussels hopes for cooperation on smart road-pricing
Brussels will start road-pricing on its territory, whether Flanders likes it or not. But the Region wants to cooperate. Brussels Mobility Minister, Elke Van den Brandt (Groen), proposes a slimmed-down approach, with exemptions on routes where there is no alternative via public transport. “I’m prepared to listen,” says Flemish Minister Lydia Peeters (Open Vld).
To ensure that there are alternatives in Brussels, the new Brussels coalition will be investing heavily in public transport in the coming years. While the Flemish public transport company, De Lijn, is in the eye of the storm, in Brussels they are working on the future of its transport company MIVB/STIB.
“Maybe Flanders should invite the MIVB/STIB to show them how it can be done,” says Van den Brandt. “The Flemish people who can’t get to the station by bus are also adding to our traffic jams. So, I sincerely hope that a joint solution can be found.”
“I hear that Flemish Minister of Mobility, Lydia Peeters (Open Vld), does not want road-pricing because people have no alternatives to the car. I consider that to be an opening,” says Van den Brandt. Let’s start gradually and modulate the system in such a way that you only pay for journeys for which there is an alternative to the car, such as train or bus.”
Specialists agree that Brussels alone will have difficulties introducing the scheme. It is an ultimate attempt to convince Flanders to jointly introduce a variable road-pricing ‘light’. “We can start with small steps. In the first phase, motorists will only pay where there are the most traffic jams. If necessary, only during rush hours, and only in and around Brussels. That is the advantage of a variable charge: you can really work to measure,” says Van den Brandt.
Whether there is a basis for this? “We can try to create one again. Because we can show that reality is not in line with the caricature that was made of it during the election campaign.”
According to Van den Brandt, road-pricing is not a tax increase: “Instead of an annual lump sum, we are moving toward an intelligent system in which the rate is determined on the basis of the number of kilometers a person travels, at what time, with which car, and on which route. At the same time, people are fiscally rewarded if they take the train.”
Van den Brandt, therefore, hopes that a joint plan will be drawn up for the introduction of road-pricing. “Let’s see what’s possible. I sincerely hope that we can get Flanders involved in this story so that we do not end up in two separate systems. Otherwise, it would mean an extra tax for the Flemish people.”
(Provisionally) off the table in Flanders
As early as 2009, the Flemish government promised to investigate how a smart road-pricing could be introduced. Motorists would not pay a fixed annual traffic tax, but a tax that depends on the number of kilometers driven, the time at which they were driven, the location, and the corresponding emissions. In this way, the government could reward citizens for leaving their cars on the sidelines or for avoiding rush hours.
Last year, as part of its climate plan, the Flemish government once again decided that road-pricing should be introduced. Former Minister of Mobility, Ben Weyts (N-VA), also defended it. But when a preparatory study leaked out during the election campaign, with prices ranging from 2 to 5 cents per kilometer, the plans were brushed aside. Many stakeholders still hope the decision will be overturned.
Current Flemish Mobility Minister, Lydia Peeters (Open Vld), is taking a constructive stance but emphasizes that road-pricing should not become a tax increase. Peeters and Van den Brandt indicate that they want to leave the ‘war’ between the Regions on mobility issues during the previous legislature behind them, but the road toll is a sensitive issue within the Flemish coalition.
‘Gradual introduction sensible’
For the time being, no country has road-pricing cars all over its territory. The system has already been implemented in Belgium for trucks since 2016. They drive around with an on-board unit that sends out signals to calculate the mileage charge.
“Of course it would be best to extend the system to passenger cars throughout the country,” says transport economist Bruno De Borger (UAntwerp). “But that’s expensive. That is why I think it would be wise to opt for step-by-step implementation.”
He has his doubts about basing this on whether people have alternative means of transport at their disposal or not. Where exactly do you draw the line? “I think it would be best to start with the cities. That’s where most of the traffic jams are in the end.”
No widening of the Brussels Ring
A compromise, with the widening of the Brussels Ring through Flanders as a currency, can count on little support from Van den Brandt. “I clearly say no to a widening of the Ring. Every expert supports me in this, as does the entire Brussels government. I acknowledge that work is needed to separate through traffic from local traffic. And that we need to introduce variable speeds so that we can reduce the speed at certain times as well.”
“There are currently about ten scenarios on the table for adapting the Brussels ring road. The impact of each scenario is examined. It is already clear that a number of scenarios will create considerably more car traffic. An extra lane creates 15 to 20% more traffic, and Brussels doesn’t have the capacity to cope with extra traffic.”