The idea is to partially privatize the network, handing over 49.9 percent of its maintenance and revenue to a newly created private company, whose investors are expected to mainly be major German insurance firms.
This could free up new funds to improve the network, but the plan’s long-term consequences are heavily disputed. Following through would require not only a major cultural shift, but also a change to Germany’s constitution.
Battle lines are already being drawn. For advocates, the plan is a brilliant opportunity to streamline road funding and get highway projects delivered more quickly. For skeptics, the proposal risks prioritizing shareholder profit over network quality, leading to possible inefficiency and neglect. Significantly, the debate is one in which international onlookers are playing more than a walk-on role. That’s because, when it comes to providing profits for Autobahn investors, it is foreign drivers who may end up footing a substantial part of the bill.
The reason for this is Germany’s current toll system. At present, cars do not pay to use the Autobahn, which is funded by taxes, but large vehicles heavier than 7.5 metric tons must pay a toll. At present, Germany’s government says a share of this revenue would be enough to entice private investors. There’s still an elephant in the room — a golden elephant. For years, Germany has been planning to charge non-domestic drivers to use the Autobahn. The reasons for the proposal are fair enough. Germany’s location means that lots of international traffic crisscrosses the country, profiting from a network that only Germans pay for.
The plan to charge non-Germans nonetheless inspired a court challenge from the European Commission, which said it contradicted the E.U.’s ban on discriminating according to nationality. The Commission had a fair point here, as while other E.U. states including France charge tolls, they do so equally to all cars. This year, Germany and the E.U. reached a compromise that will finally see the new toll introduced, likely in 2017. To fit in with E.U. law, all drivers will have to pay it. The difference is that German drivers will have the amount deducted from their current road taxes to compensate.