“Folks aren’t only angry, they’re really, really furious,” one of the many Rogaland County residents who live in and around Stavanger fumed this week. He vented his own anger just before thousands protesting a huge hike in road tolls took to the streets on Wednesday evening.
They’re demanding a halt to the new tolls that will cost some commuters thousands of extra kroner a year. “I know one nurse who needs to drive through the toll plaza twice a day, in order to get to work and deliver her child to a day care center,” Leif Arne Moi Nilsen, a local politician for the conservative Progress Party, told ABC Nyheter. “She’ll have to pay around NOK 34,000 (more than USD 4,000) a year in tolls.)”
Commuter Sigurd Sjursen, who launched the protests via social media, calls the movement “a public revolt” after “folks have seen the realities” when the actual size of the new tolls recently became known. “Enough is enough,” claims Sjursen. Nearly 1,000 people were out marching in Sandnes last week with many more marching in Stavanger on Wednesday. Others drove in slow convoys from the bridge known as Bybrua, through Stavanger and out to the E39 highway, blocking traffic along the way, while protesters were back out in Sandnes as well.
Package deal that’s lost favour
Local politicians have approved the tolls over the past several years as part of a deal with the state to share costs for both environmental and climate initiatives (a new bus route to boost public transport, bicycle and pedestrian lanes) and improvements to the E39 highway and roads that run through the area. The idea was to reduce carbon emissions, relieve traffic congestion and noise, provide new transport options and reduce air pollution.
The toll plazas have been strategically placed to both raise funds for transport improvements and discourage driving into the downtown areas of Stavanger and Sandnes, into the Forus area that’s home to many oil companies including Equinor (formerly Statoil), and to Risavika and the airport at Sola.
The problem is that families who have homes, jobs and use day care centers spread around various zones in the area of Rogaland known as Nord-Jæren will have to pay much more in tolls (called bompenger) than they do now, despite a lack of existing public transport options in an area that built up around private car use. Driving into each of the new zones will cost NOK 44 (more than USD 5) during rush-hour and NOK 22 outside the morning and afternoon commuter rush.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported that a total of 38 new toll plazas are due to open all over Nord-Jæren in October. They will collectively demand payments of NOK 25.3 billion over the next 15 years. Members of Parliament approved the package in return for providing NOK 7 billion in state funding for the infrastructure improvements plus other transport funding already earmarked for the area.
Aftenposten also reported that the Progress Party, which is a member of Norway’s conservative state government coalition and has political control of the transport ministry, was the only party at the local level to vote against the toll package when it came up for approval by city councils in Stavanger, Sandnes, Sola and Randaberg and at the county level.
Last week, however, the Labour Party called for reconsideration of the financing package and that suddenly raised arguments over how it had been hammered out. State politicians, including the Progress Party’s Transport Minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen, claim they thought the local politicians wanted the new toll package. The local politicians were under the impression it was required by the state to secure additional state funding.
Quick mobilization turns ugly
While the politicians point their fingers at each other, local residents have mobilized quickly to protest the toll package. Fully 48,000 people have joined a Facebook group that’s against “a toll ring in Sandnes and Stavanger,” while 17,000 have signed petitions against the tolls. Those are large numbers in an area that has a total population of 200,000.
Now they’re noisily out marching and consciously disrupting traffic to make their anger known. Things have also turned ugly: Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported on Wednesday that the civil servant heading the toll plaza agency along the West Coast had received a death threat. The woman who made it has since apologized, but Stavanger Mayor Christine Sagen Helgø of the Conservative Party has also been threatened as have others. Demonstrators have also defied police along the route and marched in areas that were not part of the approval they’d received from local police.
“The protesters need to think twice” about how they’re behaving, Helgø told newspaper Rogalands Avis on Thursday. Their fury has crossed a line, she said, with “incredibly many people sending messages full of hatred and threats to politicians in all the parties involved. I have full understanding that people are angry, but they need to think twice before writing what they’re writing on social media.”
On Wednesday the protesters were out marching in the rain, blocking traffic over the main bridge in Stavanger and snarling traffic all over the area for several hours. The woman in her 20s who wrote that Trond Juvik of the toll plaza agency “should get a bullet between his eyes” has since said she “only meant to act tough.” Juvik told NRK he is thus considering withdrawing the complaint he filed with police. It remained unclear whether the politicians will reconsider the toll package or start charging the new tolls as planned from October 1.