End “ineffective” programmes for shifting road freight to rail, say EU Auditors
Marco Polo programmes, aimed at shifting freight away from the roads, have been ineffective and should be discontinued in their current design, according to a new report from the European Court of Auditors (ECA). “To put it simply, the programmes were ineffective as they did not meet the targets, little impact was achieved in shifting freight off the roads and there were no data to assess the achievement of the policy objectives (e.g. environmental benefits)" said Ville Itälä, the ECA member responsible for the report. Since 2003, the Marco Polo I and II programmes have financed transport service projects designed to shift freight transport from road to rail, inland waterways and short sea shipping. The programmes have been part of the EU transport policy objective to develop alternatives to road-only freight transport. This generally accepted objective aims to reduce international road freight traffic, thereby improving the environmental performance of freight transport, reducing congestion and increasing road safety.
But the audit found there were not enough relevant project proposals put forward because the market situation and the programme rules discouraged operators from taking advantage of the scheme. Half of the audited projects were of limited sustainability. One of the main findings of the audit was that there were serious indications of “deadweight” - that is projects which would have gone ahead even without EU funding. In fact, 13 of the 16 beneficiaries audited confirmed that they would have started and run the transport service even without a subsidy. In addition, there were no reliable data to assess benefits on the environmental impact of freight transport, road congestion or road safety.
Given the results of the current programmes, the ECA recommends discontinuing EU funding for transport freight services following the design of the Marco Polo programmes. In the future, such funding should depend on an impact assessment at the outset, showing whether and to what extent there is EU added value. This should involve a detailed analysis of potential demand and best practice in the Member States.
Notes to the editors: European Court of Auditors (ECA) special reports are published throughout the year, presenting the results of selected audits of specific EU budgetary areas or management topics.
This special report (SR 03/2013) is entitled ““Have the Marco Polo programmes been effective in shifting traffic off the road?” The ECA assessed whether the Commission had planned the programmes, and was managing and supervising them, in such a way as to maximise their effectiveness, and whether the funded projects were effective. The audit work focused mainly on the programme level by analysing impact assessments, evaluations and survey results, evaluations of project proposals, desk reviews of the monitoring of signed grant agreements and surveying Marco Polo Programme (MP) Committee members on national support schemes. This programme level work was complemented by an on-site verification of project achievements for 16 completed modal shift projects, 8 for both programmes (MP I, which ran from 2003 to 2006, and MP II, which runs from 2007 to 2013).
The audit found that the programmes were not effective: the outputs achieved did not meet the targets set by EU policymakers and little impact was achieved in shifting freight off the roads. Moreover, there were no reliable data to assess benefits towards the environmental impact of freight transport, road congestion and road safety. Not enough good quality proposals were made because the programmes were not well designed for businesses and management inflexibility and implementation difficulties made beneficiaries decide either not to implement approved projects, to stop them prematurely or to cancel or reduce the scope of the service funded, once the project period was over. This provided poor project results and poor sustainability of the funded transport services. Moreover, the modest quantities reported to have been shifted are uncertain and include deadweight.
While the Commission has improved day-to-day management of the programmes over time, it has not carried out a fundamental assessment of the programmes’ market potential to achieve the policy objectives; it did not consider new developments and it did not take timely corrective action to remedy the apparent flaws in programme design.
Given the results of the current programmes, the ECA recommends the Council, the European Parliament and the Commission to consider discontinuing EU funding for transport freight services following the same design as the Marco Polo programmes (“top-down supply-push”) which led in particular to the weaknesses identified in this report (insufficient market uptake, absence of evidence of achieving the objectives, high administrative burden, poor sustainability and deadweight) and making continuation of such funding conditional upon an ex-ante impact assessment showing whether and to what extent there is an EU added value. This would imply making a detailed market analysis of the potential demand and taking up the experience and best practices of Member States similar national support schemes. Only in the event of a positive assessment as to a meaningful EU action in this area, the Court recommends that the Commission take a series of actions to strengthen performance in future schemes.