U.S Govt. hypocrites: refuse to pay tolls in London

How’s this for hypocrisy? The U.S government is delinquent in paying tolls in London (called the “congestion tax”) to the tune of $2 million, but what is our government trying to make us do here in the States? Pay tolls everywhere, even on highways we’ve already bought and paid for! If it’s good for the goose, it ought to be good for the gander. It’s about time the government starts living under the oppressive taxation they expect us to. Of course, the wealthy residents surrounding London got their “loophole” and get to drive into London for a mere $1.50 while everyone else pays $15. The Average Joe gets shafted again…

French join Americans in fight against London driving fee
By Alan Cowell
International Herald-Tribune
February 23, 2007

LONDON: Ever since authorities in London imposed a charge to drive into the city center in 2003, the U.S. Embassy has stood as a beacon of automotive defiance, refusing to pay what its diplomats call a tax from which they should be exempt.

But, when the city elders almost doubled the size of the charge zone this past week, casting their cash-hungry net over an area housing many more embassies, the Americans suddenly acquired new allies in their resistance — including from unusual quarters like France, which has not always been so supportive of U.S. diplomacy.

“The situation has changed,” said a diplomat from the French Embassy, which paid the charge for as long as its embassy in the Knightsbridge area lay outside the zone, offering diplomats a choice of buses or cabs or subway trains to enter the charging area. “Now the embassy is within the charging zone, we have no choice: We have to use vehicles for our work.”

Like the Americans, the French and some others — reportedly including Russians and Belgians — maintain that international protocols, known as the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, forbid the imposition of taxes on diplomats.

“This is not a question of rich countries being unwilling to pay,” said a senior European diplomat who, like his French colleague, spoke in return for anonymity in order to be, well, diplomatic. “It is a question of principle — legal principle and diplomatic principle.”

The charge for entering the zone is roughly $15 a day during working hours from Monday to Friday, and the London model has inspired some other European capitals, notably Stockholm, to follow suit.

While European officials say roughly half of the 27 European Union members will not pay the charge, Sweden is not among the rebels.

In fact, these have been challenging days for the British authorities who seek to exert some kind of dominion over the ever more choked streets and highways. After the congestion charge zone was extended on Monday, in a separate event on Wednesday, Prime Minister Tony Blair found himself sending e- mailed replies to a staggering 1.8 million people who had registered protests in an electronic petition on his official Web site against plans to impose nationwide road charges.

One day earlier, on Tuesday, the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, announced an innovative plan to halve fares on buses and trams for around 250,000 people living on welfare under a deal struck with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela: Essentially Venezuela will pay for one-fifth of the diesel used by 8,000 buses in return for technical advice from London on how to run a transit system — even though London buses and subways are frequently criticized by passengers.

“Both London and Venezuela will be exchanging those things in which they are rich to the mutual benefit of both,” Livingstone said.

Not everyone agreed, as Richard Barnes, a leader of the opposition Conservatives in the London Assembly, made clear. London, he said, “should not be doing business with a third-rate South American dictator with an appalling human rights and democratic record.”

The $32 million deal achieved a somewhat lesser profile than the expansion of the congestion charging zone from roughly 8 square miles to 15 square miles, or 21 square kilometers to 39 square kilometers, embracing up- market neighborhoods like Kensington and Chelsea, home to bankers and rock stars and the rich of other stripes.

One quirk about the extension of the charging zone is that about 60,000 residents of the newly extended zone received a 90 percent residents’ discount, meaning that people living, for instance, in Chelsea — whose legions of SUV drivers inspired the generic term Chelsea Tractor for their Range Rovers and BMW X5s — may now cruise the entire zone for a mere $1.50 a day.

That could well offset Livingstone’s promise to reduce congestion in central London by 10 to 15 percent. As the conservative Daily Telegraph observed in an editorial, drivers “who are among the wealthiest householders in the country will now be able to drive into central London at a fraction of the usual cost of this punitive, regressive tax.”

The embassies that have entered this fray seem eager to keep their dispute with the mayor less strident than it was a couple of years back when Livingstone railed at the U.S. ambassador, Robert Tuttle, accusing him of behaving “like some chiseling little crook” by withholding the congestion charge.

In the past, Tuttle and his aides have gone public to defend their rejection of the mayor’s argument that the congestion fee is a charge for a service and not, therefore, a tax and should, therefore, be paid.

But the American Embassy, which has been within the charging zone from the very beginning, seemed reluctant to take part in a new round of arguments.

“We are actively discussing the issue with British authorities but don’t have anything to add to what we have said before,” an Embassy spokeswoman said, insisting on anonymity and declining to answer further questions.

According to Transport for London, the official body running the city transit system, the U.S. Embassy owes more than $1.95 million in unpaid congestion charges and fines. “Those embassies that flout the law of this country and misuse diplomatic immunity to avoid the charge are enjoying the benefits of reduced congestion but contributing nothing,” Transport for London said in a statement.

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