Maier demands rail tunnel referendums

Outgoing People’s Party (ÖVP) parliament member (MP) Ferdinand Maier has suggested to let Austrians decide about the future of the various Austrian railway tunnel projects.

The Social Democrats (SPÖ) of Chancellor Werner Faymann and Vice Chancellor Michael Spindelegger’s ÖVP decided to spend more than three billion Euros on the Semmering tunnel. Only last week, the fist sod was turned in Gloggnitz at the Semmering Mountain.

SPÖ Styria chief Franz Voves praised the decision to kick off the construction. He said that around 15,000 jobs would be “created and secured” by the project. Lower Austrian ÖVP Governor Erwin Pröll endorsed the step as well after years of fighting it for environmental, financial and safety reasons.

A train journey from federal capital Vienna to Graz, the capital of the province of Styria, will take less than two hours when the 27.3-kilometre Semmering tunnel becomes part of the Austrian railway network.

Several billions of Euros will be invested on the Koralm railroad tunnel and the Brenner basis tunnel – despite the decision to slash subsidies for Federal Railways (ÖBB). Now Maier said voters should be asked to determine the future of the projects and other major rail investments.

Maier – who will resign as MP later this month – told the Kurier that the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition should consider its intention to allow more direct democracy. He said a referendum on the railway tunnel projects’ future could be held simultaneously to one about the structure of the Austrian army. The SPÖ fights for a reform of the military. It prefers a fully professional but smaller army while the ÖVP wants to stick to the conscription system. There is no decision yet whether a referendum will be held about the issue. SPÖ Defence Minister Norbert Darabos made clear he would not block attempts to organise one.

Speaking to the Kurier, Maier said the Austrian government would be well advised with taking Switzerland as an example for a functioning form of direct democracy. He said citizens should decide whether all envisaged railway tunnel projects may go ahead as planned. The federal SPÖ-ÖVP administration’s decision to go ahead with the Semmering tunnel construction – which has been content of political and economic rifts for decades – followed a disputed financial step.

ÖVP Finance Minister Maria Fekter said the coalition would amass 33 billion Euros of new debts shortly to ensure ÖBB’s capitalisation in the next few years. A spokesman for the finance ministry said this decision would help the state-funded railway firm to lower its debt from 27 to 18 billion Euros until 2017.

Maier was infuriated about being kept by ÖVP whip Karlheinz Kopf from criticising the move in a speech in parliament. He announced his decision to resign a few days later. Kopf hit back, saying: “He (Maier) planned to resign anyway. The way he chose to it is not worth commenting. Maier will soon be history.”

Former ÖVP Economy Minister Martin Bartenstein, who followed Maier as ÖVP spokesman for infrastructure topics, defended Kopf. Bartenstein told newspaper Die Presse: “Kopf enjoys strong support (in the ÖVP’s parliamentary faction).”