Obama’s Envoy in London Won’t Pay Traffic Congestion Fee, Either

By Patrick Goodenough | August 18, 2009 | 5:28 AM EDT

London’s traffic congestion charge has been credited with reducing traffic in the center of the British capital by 21 percent in its first five years of operation. (Photo copyright Transport for London)

(CNSNews.com) – The new U.S. ambassador to Britain, like the Bush-appointed envoy before him, will not pay London’s traffic congestion fee. The revenue dispute between the U.S. government and city authorities in London has been going on for four years, with no resolution in sight.
 
Advocacy groups in the U.K. are astonished that President Obama, whom they consider much more environmentally friendly than his Kyoto Protocol-rejecting predecessor, will not reverse the stance.
 
The State Department confirmed in a statement Monday that the ambassador switch will not affect “longstanding” U.S. government policy not to pay the traffic levy.
 
“The Congestion Tax is prohibited by various treaties, including the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations; the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations; our 1951 bilateral Consular Agreement with the United Kingdom; and the NATO Status of Forces Agreement,” it said.
 
Under the scheme launched by London’s former mayor Ken Livingstone in 2003, the city charges drivers eight pounds ($11.10) a day to enter demarcated central areas. Enforcement is by camera.
 
The charge rises to ten pounds ($16.40) if the congestion fee is paid the day after the trip. Failing that, defaulters are subject to a fine of $197, rising to $295 if the levy is not paid in 28 days.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton swears in the new U.S. Ambassador to Britain, Louis Susman, on July 29, 2009. Mrs. Marjorie Susman looks on. (Photo: Dept. of State)

As Louis Susman, Washington’s new ambassador, began his duties on Monday, the embassy was reported to owe the city some $5.7 million in unpaid charges and fines.
 
Under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, foreign diplomats are exempt from paying local taxes. Transport for London, the agency supervising the scheme, argues that the congestion charge is a “service” akin to a highway toll rather than a tax, a position backed by the Foreign Office.
 
The U.S. is not alone in refusing to pay what it considers a tax, although it tops the list of “offenders.” Russia owes $4.2 million and Japan $3.7 million, according to Transport for London.
 
The U.S. Embassy’s refusal in 2006 to pay the charge prompted Livingstone, an outspoken left-winger, to label then Ambassador Robert Tuttle, who was appointed by President Bush, a “chiseling little crook.”
 
“I think it stinks that he’s weaseling his way out of paying his fair share to London because it makes Londoners have to pay more because he’s not paying his way,” Livingstone complained to the BBC.
 
It was particularly unacceptable, Livingstone said, at a time when we’re basically the only serious ally that America’s got, and our young people are putting their lives on the line for George Bush’s foreign policy every day.”

The symbol for the congestion charge zone, painted on a street in central London (Photo copyright Transport for London)

The key objectives given for introducing the charge were to reduce traffic congestion and to raise revenue for the city’s public transport system.
 
Last year, Livingstone planned to adjust the scheme to make it greener: Vehicles with higher carbon dioxide emissions, such as SUVs, would pay a considerably higher daily charge ($41) while some lower-emission cars would enter the congestion zone for free. (CO2 and other “greenhouse gases” are blamed for climate change.)
 
But in May 2008, Livingstone lost his bid for a third term to Conservative Party candidate Boris Johnson, who scrapped the CO2-based plan, saying it would have hit families and small businesses the hardest.
 
Although Livingstone’s departure removed an irritant in relations between the city and the U.S. Embassy, Johnson – who regularly cycles to work – late last year declared himself “disappointed” that a number of embassies were refusing to pay the congestion charge.
 
With the arrival of Obama’s appointed envoy, Transport for London had hoped the policy would change – and that it would get the lump sum payment it says is due.
 
“Despite the change in U.S. administration, the manner in which they contemptuously sweep aside the laws of their so-called closest ally is yet another example of the unequal relationship between America and the U.K.,” said lawmaker Norman Baker, spokesman on transportation for the center-left Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third largest political party.
 
“If the U.S. continues not to pay, the danger is that more and more countries will follow suit,” Baker added, saying he would be writing to Susman on the matter.
 
The Labor Party’s spokesman for the environment in London’s governing Assembly, Murad Qureshi, wrote recently to President Obama, urging him to “reverse a mean-spirited decision taken under your predecessor’s administration by the former U.S. ambassador to the U.K., not to honor the embassy’s financial obligations to their host city with regard to the cost of driving in central London.”
 
Qureshi asked Obama to “issue a presidential decree that the new ambassador should reverse Mr. Tuttle’s decision.”