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Göteborg to have congestion charge referendum

Sweden’s second largest city, Göteborg, introduced a congestion charge at the beginning of the year. This is a “cordon” scheme, with charges being incurred when vehicles pass one of the toll points around the city, The dual aims are to reduce congestion and raise revenue for the West Sweden package, a collection of road and rail infrastructure projects. The most expensive item is the 20 billion SEK Västlänk, comprising the railway lines coloured green on the map, (copyright Traffikverket). New road links across the river are also part of the package. Last week, the city council voted to hold a non-binding referendum on the congestion charge, thereby throwing the whole future of the package into question.

Here is an example of what might in principle have been a good idea falling down on execution and in the light of other principles. As experience in London has shown, congestion charges are an inefficient way of raising revenue due to their high collection costs. Their main point is to improve environmental conditions and traffic flow. Figures released by Traffikverket show that this has indeed been the case, but residents close to the zone boundary have found themselves picking up big bills for short journeys, which has led to the demand for the referendum. It is also the case that congestion in the city centre itself is, on the whole, not a serious environmental problem as so much of the road space is dedicated to electric trams, a nineteenth century system which has been updated over the years.

If the referendum goes against the congestion charge, the politicians will have a problem on their hands. It will put the whole future of the project at risk. But a rethink is necessary.

The new underground railway is intended to join the separate suburban lines north and south of the river to form a continuous route and make it possible to run regional expresses. People will then be able to make through journeys without having to change at Göteborg Central (the red rectangle on the map), a present a terminal station. However, a glance at the map shows that there is scope for reducing the cost substantially. Instead of looping round under the city centre, the link could be more direct, thereby shortening the tunnel. One of the alternative options put forward would move the main city station to another location. This, however, would change the whole balance of land use in the city, which at present has its focus close to the existing Central station.

That raises the fundamental issue – this scheme, or any other, will have a heavy impact on land values. The new suburban railway to Nödinge and Ale, which opened in December, has already pushed up land values as tracts of undeveloped land now have the potential for residential development for commuters. The proposed underground railway, with its two stations, will likewise push up land values in their vicinity.

It is unjust that those who live on the fringes of the city and are paying the bulk of the congestion charge should be the main contributors to the cost of benefits which will be enjoyed by landowners. We would suggest instead that a more cost-effective scheme is put together, and that it be paid for by an increase in the land value element of the Fastighetsskatt, a 1% tax on the value of land and buildings; as these are valued separately, there is no reason why the land value rate could not be higher in those communes which will benefit from this infrastructure. Relative changes in value will then be picked up when the revaluation takes place. Infrastructure should be paid by the beneficiaries – those who own land, either directly or indirectly as owners of property which stands on that land.