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German government seriously considering free public transport idea

Berlin – The German government is seriously considering making public transport for commuters free of charge in certain cities in order to improve air quality, at least temporarily, government spokesman Steffen Seibert has announced in Berlin.

Suggestions to reduce pollution

Seibert was reacting to a news of a letter to European Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella, seen by dpa, that was signed by German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, Transport Minister Christian Schmidt and Head of the Federal Chancellery Peter Altmaier.

The federal government planned to look into the option with the governments of Germany's 16 states and municipal leaders, Seibert said.
"We are prepared to take steps," he said.

The government move follows a call from the European Union relating in particular to levels of oxides of nitrogen, with the European Commission in Brussels warning of legal action if limits laid down by the bloc are not adhered to.

He said the government was awaiting the commission's assessment of Berlin's proposals. Everything possible would be done to improve air quality and to avoid bans on the use of the diesel-powered vehicles that are held largely responsible for exacerbating air pollution.

An Environment Ministry spokesman said the aim of the proposal was to stimulate discussion and to increase the leeway for municipalities to act. Subsidies could be considered, he said.

Scepticism from transport authorities

The association of cities and local authorities expressed reservations on the federal government's move, which came as a surprise.

"At best this could be a long-term project for the future," the association's chief executive, Gerd Landsberg, told a regional newspaper. He noted that more vehicles and staff would be required and queried who would bear the costs.

"In any case, the municipalities and the public transport providers cannot pay for this," Landsberg said. Short-distance public transport took in around 13 billion euros (16 billion dollars) a year, and these funds were needed to maintain and expand services, he said.

In Hamburg the local public transport authority (HVV) said it took in around 830 million euros a year in fares.

Foregoing this would be equivalent to building a new "Elphi," the spokesman said in reference to the northern port city's new concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie, which has become a byword in Germany for cost overruns.