Former Together politician-turned-civil activist Zoltán Büki has announced he is organizing a country-wide road blockage for March 1. He told ATV’s morning news program that the blockade is not intended to be just another one-off protest, but rather a large-scale event of sufficient size and duration to force the government into negotiations with protesters. So far, more than 4000 motorists have RSVP’d the event on Facebook.
In December the government announced that from January 1 motorists wishing to use sections of motorways falling within a given county could do so with the purchase of a county sticker at annual cost of HUF 5000 (USD 18) – a small fraction of what it costs to purchase a sticker valid for the entire country. Offsetting this “good news” was the announcement that motorists would have to pay to use sections of the MO ring-road around Budapest, as well as many of its approaches (highlighted in red below). Beginning January certain parts of Budapest, including the Ferenc Liszt International Airport, are now only accessible via segments of motorways whose use is no longer free of charge.
Although the introduction of the county sticker system is not expected to raise more than HUF 4 or 5 billion (USD 15-18 million) annually, it will incentivize commuters living in Pest county to leave their cars at home and take regional buses or trains into Budapest. The government is eager, among other things, to substantially increase passenger traffic on the new M4 underground in order to avoid having to repay hundreds of millions of euros in development grants to the European Union. (Whether a given project qualifies for development grants depends on not only its timely completion but also on achieving certain objectives, such as an improvement in air quality and a decrease in vehicular traffic, within a certain period.)
The government may also be eager to justify a large investment in regional infrastructure, including the purchase of buses and trains, especially since former Budapest Public Transportation Center (BKK) head David Vitezy, a relative of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s, went to work for the government “coordinating” and “rationalizing” the schedules of the national railway company (MÁV) with those of the national bus company (Volán). (Even Chancellor Janos Lazar alluded to the importance of improving regional transportation in a recent interview, if only to “make it easier for poor people to access public health care”).
The sticker system took effect immediately on January 1, with a two-month waiting period for drivers to acquire the necessary passes. So far Hungary’s National Road Fee-handling Service Company (Nemzeti Útdíjfizetési Szolgáltató) has sold 210,000 county stickers despite the fact that its on-line vending system was completely overwhelmed, with many transactions that should be virtually instantaneous taking many hours.
The chaotic situation has been amplified by the confusion around which road sections will remain free of charge and which will not. The Miskolc bypass road is so far the only one that was originally in the for-pay plan but later exempted. Many other cities now demand the same treatment for their regional road network.
The new county motorway tax is opposed not only by motorists, but by the mayors of towns and cities astride regular roads connecting Budapest itself to its many suburbs and exurbs. The mayors are rightly concerned that these roads will become snarled with commuter traffic, with a concomitant increase in air and noise pollution, as well as the additional cost of road maintenance and repair.
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