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Monday, 17 February, 2003, 09:30 GMT
Norway's road toll 'success'
Oslo toll ring
Toll ring not just for traffic reduction

As London introduces a 5 congestion charge to drive into the city centre, people in Norway have been paying a fee to enter most of the country's bigger cities for more than a decade.

In the capital Oslo, cars queue up at one of the 19 toll booths which make up what has become known as the 'toll ring'.

They all have to pay around $2 to enter the city, and nobody here seems to be unhappy with the system.

The two women staffing this booth tell me complaints are rare, and that most drivers pay with a smile and a thank you.

Resistance

But when the first toll barriers appeared back in 1990, people were less happy.

"The project was not very popular," says Ivar Soerlie, who is the Director of Transport for the city of Oslo.

Oslo's famous blue trams
The charge has helped to improve public transport

He explains how the Oslo toll ring was not originally built to discourage people from driving into the city, but to help finance new road and tunnel projects which would get heavy traffic out of the city centre.

These plans were met with a lot of resistance at first, and the city authorities started looking for other ways to justify the whole project.

"A big problem was to obtain acceptance for a toll road system, and one important thing was to not only build new roads, but raise money to a better public transport system," says Soerlie.

The Oslo city authorities decided to channel a full 20 percent of the income from the toll ring into improving public transport, like the city's famous blue trams.

It helped turn public opinion, but there are still those who are unhappy with it all.

'We pay enough'

Egil Otter at The Norwegian Automobile Association wants to get rid of the Oslo toll ring altogether.

"This is an extra tax," he says.

Paying at toll booth
The toll has broad political support

"It comes on top of the ordinary taxes. Yes, it was a desperate need for these two tunnels back in the late eighties, it was chaos here - so people were willing to pay.

"But just temporarily. Yes, it generates a lot of money, but once again; we pay extremely much in ordinary taxes, so we pay enough."

People in and around Oslo tend to disagree with this though. For them the positive effects - less traffic, cleaner air and safer neighbourhoods - are powerful arguments for keeping the system going.

And there is no political support for removing the toll ring at this stage. Heidi Soerensen is from the Socialist Left party, which was sceptical about raising funds for new roads through a toll system to begin with.

Now, she says, she and her party whole-heartedly support the toll ring:

"Of course people who live inside the toll ring are very happy about it, because it reduces traffic.

"But also those living outside can see that when we have air pollution conditions sometimes in winter that match Mexico City, people realise you can't give priority to the car.

"The centre of Oslo should not be a place where the highest priority is the car, but the people, and their ability to live and have a happy life there," says Soerensen.

The Oslo toll ring is supposed to be decommissioned in 2007.

But the Oslo City Council has already suggested keeping up a drivers' charge - in some shape or form - also after this date. And there has been no public outcry to that suggestion yet.

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