While the debate rages about the benefits of joining the EU, Switzerland's self-imposed exclusion seems to have had a positive effect on the environment.
In this fourth report in a special series comparing Switzerland and Austria, swissinfo finds that the road to Brussels can be a dirty one.
Approaching the Austrian city of Innsbruck from the Brenner Pass, a thick layer of smog hovers over the city, trapped by the high mountain walls on its north and south flanks.
The poor air quality is the downside to the stunning alpine setting of the Tyrolean capital, which was twice host to the winter Olympics.
“One particle of harmful exhaust emissions is up to nine times as damaging as it is in the plains because there is little exchange of air in the narrow alpine valleys,” laments Georg Willi of Tyrol’s Green Party.
The main cause of the high emissions are the thousands of trucks which thunder each day over the Brenner Pass directly south of Innsbruck (see video and audio).
“Not only are health costs high, but people living close to the motorway have changed their social behaviour,” says Fritz Gurgiser, who heads a citizens' rights group, Transit Forum.
“Psychologists in Innsbruck did a large study of the effects of living close to the motorway,” Gurgiser continues. “It showed that the main losers are children whose school performance worsens. In the long-term, there is an increased risk of cancer.”
The Brenner, Switzerland’s Gotthard route and the Mont Blanc and Frejus tunnels between France and Italy are Europe’s key north-south links.
However, the Brenner is by far the most popular route. About 1.8 million 40-ton trucks crossed the Alps using the Brenner last year – 400,000 more than in 2003.
At the same time, the number of trucks using all Swiss north-south routes is steadily decreasing, with 1.3 million in 2003, a decline of 100,000 compared to 2002.
The reason is two-fold. Austria has been forced to adhere to common European Union policy on motorway tolls, which has led to a sharp drop in prices, while non-member Switzerland has been able to negotiate a deal largely on its own terms, which includes a steady rise in road taxes (see in brief).
The Swiss government is using much of the tax income to finance the construction of two transalpine rail tunnels.
From road to rail
Switzerland’s ultimate goal is to transfer all freight from road to rail. It also intends to limit the number of trucks crossing the Swiss Alps to 650,000 annually by 2009.
In its latest report on transport, the state government of Tyrol says one-third of all trucks currently using the Brenner do so to avoid the high Swiss taxes since the route through Switzerland would be shorter.
And the population of Tyrol is expected to suffer even more as the Swiss tighten restrictions. The transport office predicts that by 2015 the number of trucks crossing the Brenner will double.
The authorities say despite cleaner engines, the trucks are responsible for two-thirds of the nitrogen oxide emissions choking Innsbruck and other towns in the Inn valley.
The emissions were well above permitted levels in 2003.
But the predicted increase in traffic is disputed by Tyrol’s main business lobby, the Tyrol Economic Chamber.
“We expect a relative reduction in 2005 when Germany introduces a road pricing scheme for heavy vehicles,” says the chamber’s transport expert, Helmut Lamprecht.
He says this will be because of fewer trucks from eastern Europe which first have to cross through Germany on their way south.
Lamprecht also calls the Brenner route “Austria’s cash cow” since the road tax is an important source of income for the state.
However, Gurgiser of Transit Forum says the purported economic benefits are nonsense. “The open roads policy benefits Austria’s competition in 95 per cent of the cases.”
He says European policy encourages the transport of goods by road. “We pay more for a litre of milk produced locally than a litre that has been transported 2,000km.
“The transport of goods by road over long distances is artificially sustained by government policy. It’s criminal because we pay a high price with the degradation of our environment, the loss of our jobs and health.
“Nobody wants more traffic but the business community argues that if our road taxes are too high, the price of goods will go up,” says Willi.
“So the business lobby and some consumer groups demand low taxes on freight and that’s cheaper on the roads than the rails,” he explains. “But road freight should be subject to similar restrictions as goods transported by rail, sea or air.
“The Swiss have the best system and that should apply to the whole alpine region,” he argues.
“If Switzerland joined the EU, it would demand that it be allowed to keep its transport policy. That’s why we believe Swiss membership is so important because we would expect to be treated as equals.”
swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Innsbruck
In 2004, a 40-ton truck travelling about the same distance paid:
SFr215 ($186) to cross the Swiss Alps.
SFr170 to cross the Austrian Alps.
As of January 1, 2005, Switzerland increased its price to SFr307 and will up it to SFr333 in 2008.
Findings from the latest report by the Tyrol transport office:
In 2002, 26.2 million tons of goods were transported by truck across the Brenner Pass compared with 7.5 million for the Gotthard route, Switzerland’s most important north-south link.
In the same year, 14.2 million tons of goods were transported by rail on the Gotthard route, compared with 10.8 million tons on the Brenner.
In Austria’s lower Inn valley, road traffic is responsible for 85% of harmful nitrogen oxide emissions, and trucks account for 62% of these emissions even though they make up only 20% of all traffic.