U.S. Embassy seeks to put brakes on London transit fee


LONDON -- The most recent spat between the U.S. government and its good friends in Britain may not be as serious as the Kyoto global warming tangle or the tiff over steel tariffs, but make no mistake about it, this disagreement is not going to be easily paved over -- and it's likely to cost both countries some money.

Somewhere around $8 a day.

Tired of Central London's streets being jammed bumper to bloody bumper with drivers too lazy -- or too smart -- to use the subway or the city's buses, officials here have decided that drivers inching through the heart of the city during the day must pay $8.

London's mayor calls it a "congestion charge." Employees of the U.S. Embassy, which is in the heart of London, call it a tax -- and as any student of history might guess, these Americans are not about to pay a British tax.

Protests begin

The charge doesn't take effect until February, but the protests have begun. No one has dumped any cars into the Thames yet, but embassy employees say they are exempt under the 1961 Vienna Convention, which prohibits taxing of diplomatic staff. Unmoved, London officials say tsk, tsk, if you drive to work expect to pay up.

"The Americans are not poor, and if they're disabled and have to drive, they'll be exempt from the fee," Bibi Berki, spokeswoman for London Mayor Ken Livingstone, said yesterday. "Otherwise, they pay like everybody else."

Fine, officials at the U.S. Embassy told the British Broadcasting Corp., which reported the story yesterday, but retribution could be right around the corner. British diplomats, the Americans said, shouldn't be surprised when they face similar fees in Washington.

"We have brought the illegal nature of this tax to the attention of the British government but it is unable to do anything about it," a U.S. Embassy official told the BBC. The Americans, perhaps sensing a diplomatic collision, declined to be interviewed for this article.

But to officials with the city of London -- distinct from the national government -- charging U.S. Embassy employees for using the city's roads is no different than making British diplomats pay tolls for the bridges and tunnels of New York or Washington.

About 700 people -- half of them U.S. citizens and half of them British -- work at the U.S. Embassy, and the vast majority already use public transportation. And at $8 per car per day, the congestion charge is not about to add significantly to the American national debt.

But embassy personnel contacted lawyers in Washington and posed a question: When is a fee a fee, and when is it a tax?

Because the money is going to be used for improvements to London's infrastructure, the lawyers reasoned, it must be a tax.

London officials are not about to admit that. The mayor decided on his own to charge motorists, so calling the $8 a day a tax would make the fee -- or whatever it is -- illegal.

"It's like a parking charge," Berki said. "Think of it that way."

That's not hard to do, given that London's roads often resemble parking lots. More than 600,000 people have moved into the city over the past decade, and it shows in every form of transportation.

Transportation woes

London's subway, "the Tube," is an ancient, sweltering, unreliable wreck of a system, but it remains -- except during frequent failures -- the quickest way to move about the city. It is so packed with people that workers with microphones are on hand to encourage the throngs to spread out over the entire platform while waiting to board.

The city's famous double-decker buses are not immune from the very gridlock the mayor is aiming at, and the system is afflicted by a shortage of vehicles. Money raised from motorists is supposed to go toward buying more buses, but in the meantime, waits are long enough that the bus stops could better be called shelters.

So people drive despite the gridlock. The government says the horse and buggies of a century ago moved people through Central London faster than today's cars, which average 9 mph during rush hour.

"The public transport system isn't good, people can't rely on it and at least in the car you can listen to the radio," said Paul Watters, head of roads and transport policy at England's Automobile Association, which claims 12 million members. "We've been saying we need at least a decade of unparalleled investment in public transport. It's been neglected for generations in London."

How the fee works

The charges will be in effect weekdays in an 8-square-mile zone in the center of London, which handles about 40,000 vehicles an hour during the morning commute. Cars can enter and leave the zone as many times as they like for the single fee. The budget is about $250 million to set up the program, which will use 230 cameras to take pictures of license plates, which will then be checked against a database to make sure the fee has been paid.

Licensed taxis will be exempt, along with some low-income workers and firefighters driving their cars from station to station, and residents will get a 90 percent discount.

Poor countries having trouble meeting their bills in expensive London will be considered for exemption.

But not employees of the U.S. Embassy.

"Honestly, that will not happen," said Berki, the London spokeswoman. "What's the point of bringing in a charge if you're going to exempt everybody?"

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