NEWS ANALYSIS: As hundreds of thousands of Norwegians hit the road this week, to spend the country’s long Easter holiday weekend at mountain cabins or elsewhere out of town, they could look forward to some new highway and rail improvement projects around the country. While sitting in traffic, though, they could also ponder how state and local officials are still mostly keen on getting Norwegians out of their cars and using public transportation instead, to cut carbon emissions.
State government officials rolled out their priorities last week, shortly after they’d been presented with the latest National Transport Plan earlier this month from highway, railroad, maritime and aviation bureaucrats. Transport Minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen and Labour Minister Anniken Hauglie promised better traffic flow and safety, unveiling their own plans to invest NOK 9.4 billion this year alone in maintenance projects to improve transport on the roads, the rails and along the coast.
“We have a huge backlog of maintenance needs,” Solvik-Olsen said, claiming that the conservative government coalition aims to renew transport infrastructure and create jobs at the same time. He boasted that the investment this year is up nearly 80 percent from the level spent on maintenance when the coalition took over from the former left-center government in 2013.
Much of the funding has already been directed at the state railroad Jernbaneverket, with improvements to the lines between Oslo and Bergen, over the Dovre Mountains to Trondheim and south along the coast from Oslo to Kristiansand and on to Stavanger. Railroad boss Elisabeth Enger in turn promised to carry out record rail improvements, also through the Oslo area. Harbours and coastal shipping routes are getting some attention as well, while nearly NOK 4.2 billion has been set aside to repave and improve around 1,300 kilometers of national highways, including maintenance of tunnels and bridges.
The new state-owned highway company Nye veier, spun off to streamline new highway construction projects, also released its priorities, topped by expansion of the E18 highway between Tvedestrand and Arendal and between Langangen and Dørdal to four lanes. The busy E6 highway between Kolomoen and Moelv along the eastern side of Lake Mjøsa will also be expanded to four lanes. Other projects include expansion of the E18 around Kristiansand and three stretches of the E6 in Trøndelag.
Despite the roadbuilding and maintenance projects, the political priority is mostly on public transport systems. Public policy is aimed at discouraging use of private cars and encouraging travelers to use bus systems, trains and trams instead, or ride bicycles. Just as Norwegian transportation officials were rolling out their own latest National Transport Plan earlier this month, though, the entire metro system in Oslo collapsed because of technical problems. While that highlighted the need for public transport improvements as well, it was a bad omen for politicians trying to get even more Norwegians to use public transportation instead of their cars. Bus, metro and tram lines are already well-used in Oslo, often with standing-room-only during the morning and afternoon commuter rush. Along with local trains, though, they aren’t always reliable.
“We had a major failure and a serious error, and we apologize for what happened,” Metro (T-banen) spokesman Cato Asperud told news bureau NTB after tens of thousands of commuters were stranded by the standstill on a busy Monday morning. The technical problem halted communication between the metro trains and operations central, bringing the entire system to a halt just as the commuter rush was beginning. Officials couldn’t immediately explain what went wrong.
It occurred just as many people were returning from a week of winter holiday, and when highway officials closed a tunnel on a heavily trafficked transportation artery at Bryn on Oslo’s east side, for maintenance work. They had been urging commuters all weekend to opt for public transport instead of driving, to reduce the traffic congestion expected at Bryn.
Driving can be even more expensive
The irony was complete just a few hours later, when the leaders of Norway’s trains, roads, ferries and aviation agencies presented their proposals for long-term transportation projects that are aimed at speeding people and cargo on their way while also cutting carbon emissions by half by 2030. The result was an emphasis on making driving ever more expensive to discourage private automobile use, and clearing the way for more bike lanes and rail travel. The transport officials proposed boosting vehicle taxes even beyond current levels, which include more than a 100 percent tax on the purchase of a car, high fuel taxes, higher parking fees, another increase in car registration fees, more tolls and higher toll rates.
It already costs nearly NOK 50 (USD 5.80) in tolls to drive from suburban Bærum into Oslo, for example, and gasoline prices have long been among the highest in the world, even now when oil prices are low. The roughly NOK 13 Norwegians currently pay per liter of gasoline is already made up mostly of taxes. Last week, city officials in Bergen announced plans to charge a whopping NOK 225 toll to drive into downtown on days with high air pollution. On days when it’s imposed, however, public transport will be free.
The goal is zero-growth in personal car use in all of Norway’ nine largest urban areas. To get people out of their cars and on bicycles instead, the state highway department Veivesenet is proposing construction of express cycling lanes on key motorways in Oslo (on the E6 highway Bryn-Lillestrøm and RV163 Akershus-Økern), Bergen (E39 Rådkal-downtown), Trondheim (E6 Tiller and Heimdal-Rotvoll), Nord-Jæren (E39 Stavanger-Sandnes), Nedre Glomma (Grålum-Kalnes) and Buskerudbyen (E134 Gulskogen-Mjøndalen).
At the same time plans are still in place to expand the busy E18 highway west of Oslo between Lysaker and Ramstadsletta and create a four-lane route between Oslo and Stavanger. Several other highway projects were viewed as worthwhile, as were railroad projects including the InterCity line in southeastern Norway that connects key cities around Oslo, along with a double track on the Ofotbanen.
Despite carbon emission concerns, the transport agencies also recommended building a third runway at Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen, which also serves as Norway’s gateway airport. That proposal met immediate opposition from smaller regional airports and environmental organizations because of the emissions caused by aircraft at a time when politicians have also tried to discourage flying. Others pointed to the irony of proposing a third runway to increase flight capacity at OSL Gardermoen, right when the government has been on the verge of imposing a highly contested new airline seat tax meant to curb emissions. It was postponed last week.
Minister keen to curb the taxes
Improvements to the train system have wide support among Norwegian voters, but more onerous taxes on driving are not popular without a massive boost in public transportation on offer. The proposed taxes and tolls are also hard to swallow for Solvik-Olsen, the transport minister, who admittedly loves cars and hails from the anti-tax Progress Party.
He was quick to point out that the proposals recommended in the latest National Transport Plan, which is updated every four years, also face roadblocks because they can put too heavy a tax burden on residents of outlying areas of Norway, where public transportation is much worse than in the cities. It’s not so easy for them to just give up their cars, when they live on farms or simply far from stores, schools and jobs.
The transport plan also proposes that only electric- or hydrogen vehicles be sold in Norway after 2030. All new buses should be electric or hydrogen-fueled by 2025.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, argue that no matter how tough or expensive it becomes to drive in Norway, emissions could be cut much more massively and quickly by simply closing down an oil field or two. Politicians then wouldn’t risk social outcry over all the driving restrictions, but would surely catch heat from the oil industry and West Coast communities already reeling from cutbacks and loss of jobs.