European Union transport ministers yesterday agreed on the need for a common European policy to promote urban public transport including opening up the sector to private financing initiatives. «All the countries underscored the need for a common European policy on urban public transport,» said Greek Transport Minister Christos Verelis, after chairing an informal meeting of EU ministers of transport on board the vessel Eleftherios Venizelos heading for the city of Katakolo, in the western Peloponnese. Greece currently holds the rotating EU presidency. Verelis said a common transport policy would aim at reducing pollution in cities. Over the last decade, the number of cars in the EU nearly tripled to 175 million and is estimated to increase by more than 3 million annually. Part of this has to do with the inadequacies of urban public transport, while the outward expansion of cities and the flight of city residents to the suburbs have also played a role. The result has been a massive rise in congestion and pollution. Congestion could cost Europe dearly, according to an EU White Paper on Transport from 2001. Costs related to this problem are forecast to increase by 142 percent to reach 80 billion euros annually, equivalent to 1 percent of the region’s GDP. «There is a need for private funding to speed up investment in urban transport infrastructure,» said Loyola de Palacio, European Commission vice president and transport and energy commissioner. Long-term financing is seen as vital to the vitality of urban public transport. Verelis said partnerships between the public and private sector for the management and operation of an urban public transport network would not lead to additional costs for users. An EU conference in Barcelona last November raised the issue of urban tolls for road users and the prospect of special fuel taxes, with the proceeds intended for further investments. London recently instituted tolls for cars seeking entry to the city center, following in the footsteps of a number of cities around the world. «It [urban tolls] is out of the question,» said Verelis. He said the Greek presidency had recommended methods, which Greece had already implemented, to improve the quality and speed of urban transport. These included creating bus lanes and offering other alternative modes of travel such as the metro and trams. Verelis said the EU was exploring other ways to cut down on pollution from cars, such as the recent launch of a pilot program in 10 European cities involving 30 hydrogen-powered cars.