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Effort to cut Milan traffic halted as court favors garage


MILAN, Italy >> It would seem to go without saying that a measure aimed at reducing traffic in the center of a city would hurt the business of a parking garage there. It would not even seem to be a matter of dispute, much less a court case.

Yet in Italy, where obstructionism has been raised to a fine art, few were surprised when an administrative court, the Council of State, upheld a parking garage’s right to appeal and Milan’s six-month experiment with a fee that was designed to reduce traffic congestion hit a brick wall.

There are 9 million cases — nearly two-thirds of them civil cases — limping through Italian courts, which the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice cites as among the most backlogged in Europe. Critics bemoan the plethora of laws that can be employed on behalf of a vast array of special interests.

“There is always a ‘higher petition’ that annuls the preceding one that in turn could be contradicted by another ruling, destined in any case to be surpassed,” Pierluigi Battista, a columnist with Corriere della Sera, a Milan daily, wrote of the parking lot case. “It’s an infinite game that strangles all decisions in Italy, mortifies every choice, deprives of meaning every option in the fetters of eternal postponement. Who will invest in Italy, among the tangle of commas and legal motions that feed the sense of paralysis, make palpable the feeling that in Italy everything is impossible?”

The ruling, which eliminated a charge of 5 euros, or about $6, to drive into the city’s core, was embraced by many businesses in the affected area. Environmental groups and cycling lobbies reacted angrily, saying that the ruling suspended what had been a strong effort to improve the air quality and livability of one of the most traffic-clogged and polluted cities in Europe. Milan had been one of a handful of cities, including London and Oslo, to have adopted such a program.

The Municipal Council, which has put taming the city’s snarling traffic high on its agenda, cast the debate on a loftier level, questioning whether the financial interest of one should prevail over the interests of the community.

“Today we register with respect, but also concern, that the loss suffered by a private parking lot is at issue in a court of law and that this has blocked a measure that benefits all Milanese residents,” Pierfrancesco Maran, the council member responsible for traffic planning, said in a statement on July 25, the day the court issued its decision.

Traffic is Public Enemy No. 1 in Milan, where it is estimated that 730,000 vehicles, including 460,000 driven by people who live outside the city, circulate each day, jamming its historic streets and slowing public transportation.

The previous center-right city administration had set some limits, banning cars that fell below certain emissions standards, but after residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of a referendum to diminish the use of private cars, the current center-left government introduced the congestion fee.

During the six months when the charge was enforced, traffic within the zone decreased by 34 percent and overall traffic in Milan by 7 percent, Maran said, noting that the point of the fee was to diminish the use of private cars. The money raised was tagged for more public transport, bike lanes and parking lots outside the city center.

“Traffic accidents decreased as well,” Maran said.

Emissions of black carbon, the soot caused by diesel engines that has emerged as the second-largest contributor to global climate change, also decreased 30-50 percent, he said.

“We were seeing positive results,” he said. “People were modifying their habits.”

For opposition lawmakers, the congestion charge was too restrictive, not to mention costly in a moment of economic crisis. The previous center-right government had imposed stiff fees only on cars considered high-emission vehicles.

“Many Milanese residents and businesses had bought Euro 4 and Euro 5 vehicles, or put filters on their mufflers, so they could go into the center,” Alessandro Morelli of the Northern League said, referring to less polluting cars. “They went into debt for nothing.”

He also pointed out that if sport utility vehicles and minicars pay the same amount to enter the city center, the charge is unlikely to make a difference to pollution.

Giulio Gallera of the People of Liberty Party in Milan said the $6 fee (less for residents of the area) had a considerable impact on people’s wallets, but negligible results when it came to cleaner air because of Milan’s location in the Po River basin, “where air doesn’t move much.”

For now, proponents of the fee are emphasizing that the court based its ruling on a procedural matter, not merit, and in November a regional administrative court will rule on whether the parking lot’s claims are justified. So far, Milanese reaction to the suspension seems to have been muted, partly because the fee was scheduled to be suspended in August in any case, because so many residents go on vacation.

But the reaction was more pronounced at Mediolanum Parking, the garage that filed the lawsuit. After the ruling, said an employee who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak, people dropped by “both to thank and insult us, at least for a couple of days.”

The employee confirmed that business had dropped after the congestion charge was introduced, but argued that because the exclusion zone was so small, “it didn’t make much of an impact on pollution.”

He was willing to concede one thing: “It was easier to drive around.”

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