Court strikes down Madrid Central low-emission zone over legal technicalities

The ruling conservatives, who launched the battle while in the opposition, now face the prospect of losing millions in revenue from traffic fines

A traffic jam on Madrid's Gran Vía.
A traffic jam on Madrid's Gran Vía.Julian Rojas

A court has cancelled Madrid Central, a low-emissions area introduced in late 2018 to fight pollution in the Spanish capital, alleging legal technicalities.

The Madrid regional high court said on Monday that the local law establishing the traffic restrictions in October 2018 was approved without a proper public disclosure process or an economic impact report.

If the court’s decision is upheld, the most polluting vehicles will be allowed back into the Madrid city center

The ruling is the result of two appeals filed by the conservative Popular Party (PP) while it was in the opposition, as well as a third appeal by a company that helps people fight traffic fines, DVuelta Asistencia Legal.

Environmental groups said they will challenge the court’s decision. If Madrid Central is finally struck down, 815,000 traffic tickets issued between March 2019 and February 2020 would be cancelled, depriving the city of an estimated €36.6 million.

Until March 2019, violators were simply sent letters in a bid to raise awareness about the need to combat air pollution and bring Madrid in line with other European capitals.

A dilemma

Madrid Central was the signature issue of the leftist administration headed by Manuela Carmena, and it was heavily criticized by the PP despite the fact that the concept built on an earlier idea for a no-traffic zone developed in 2014 by then-mayor Ana Botella of the PP. The conservatives at one point compared Madrid Central with the Warsaw Guetto and the Berlin Wall.

Now that the PP is back in power under Mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida, it is facing a dilemma: maintaining the same position that led it to fight Madrid Central, which could mean losing millions in revenue from traffic violations, or appealing the court’s decision along with the environmentalists.

For now, the city will continue to issue traffic tickets to violators because the court’s decision is not yet final, said municipal sources.

The Madrid Central low-emissions zone has been described as one of the most effective plans in the European Union for the reduction of nitrogen dioxide. According to a report by the European federation of environmental associations, Transport & Environment (T&E) emissions of the greenhouse gas at one point fell 32% thanks to the initiative, which made 4.7 square kilometers of the city center mostly off-limits to traffic. This figure, however, is taken from the only measuring station within the low-emissions zone.

In July 2019, the newly elected Almeida attempted to introduce a moratorium on sanctions but he was stopped by the courts, which cited the need “to preserve public health and the environment.”

Under the scheme, the older, most polluting vehicles cannot enter the low-emissions zone, while those with a B or C designation from the national traffic authority (DGT) can only go into public parking spaces. Exceptions are made for residents, delivery vehicles and others.

If the court’s decision is upheld, the most polluting vehicles will be allowed back into the city center.

Political reaction

While Mayor Almeida has not commented on the court’s decision, his deputy Begoña Villacís, of Ciudadanos (Citizens), said that “the ruling confirms what we were saying while in the opposition: lack of information, lack of an economic impact study...”

“Now is when we will see whether Almeida is everyone’s mayor or the foolish hooligan he was before the coronavirus health crisis,” said the Socialist councilor Alfredo González. “We cannot agree with endangering the health of Madrid residents due to legal technicalities.”

The ruling is “terrible news for the health of Madrileños,” said Rita Maestre, the municipal spokesperson for Más Madrid.

English version by Susana Urra.

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