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Autobahn toll plan attracts backlash

| Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, 8:03 p.m.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel plans to charge everyone for the privilege of driving on the country's speedy autobahn, except Germans.

After weeks of negotiations, Merkel's conservative bloc and the Social Democrats agreed to levy a toll for using the country's highways as part of a deal to form a governing coalition. While details remain vague before they take power, which will be after Social Democrat party members vote on the agreement by Thursday, the one clear stipulation is that the tax shouldn't result in additional costs for Germans.

The plan has unleashed a backlash. Drivers from neighboring countries say Germany is undermining Europe's open borders. Even locals question the point of a targeted toll, which would raise about $352 million, according to an estimate from German car club ADAC, because it would do little to cover costs to upgrade aging infrastructure.

“We have made Europe into a place with the free flow of traffic, and now we really threaten this,” said Mike Pinckaers, a spokesman for Dutch drivers' association ANWB. If Germany starts such a toll, other countries could follow suit, creating divisions and potentially “eroding the European spirit.”

Germany was a transport pioneer when it opened Europe's first car-only freeway in 1921 in Berlin. The free-wheeling autobahn, which often doesn't have a speed limit, has spurred a motoring culture, helping Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen AG's Audi and Porsche dominate the market for high-end cars.

That legacy of speed is in jeopardy as money spent on roads, bridges, railways and public transport has fallen in real terms or stagnated over the past two decades, while passenger traffic has climbed 27 percent and freight use has soared 75 percent, according to data from the Environment Ministry and German economic researcher DIW.

Germany has the most neighbors in Europe, sharing about 2,330 miles of borders with nine nations. European countries such as Italy and France already require drivers to pay fees at highway toll booths.

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