Judge Orders Madrid to Keep Fining Polluting Drivers

MADRID — A judge has intervened in a fierce political battle over who should be allowed to drive in Madrid, ordering the city’s new right-wing administration to continue fining people who take polluting vehicles into a restricted central zone.

Mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida had prompted street protests by suspending fines against those who drive older cars or motorcycles into Madrid Central, a low-emissions zone established by his left-wing predecessor. The mayor’s team said the moratorium on fines would last three months while it studied other ways to combine car traffic with efforts to improve air quality.

But in a local court ruling issued on Friday, less than a week after the fines stopped, Judge Jesús Torres Martínez ruled that the Madrid Central system was “essential” in order “to improve the quality of the air that the citizens of Madrid breathe, which has a direct impact on health.”

Madrid’s City Hall said that it would respect the order to reinstate the fines for now, but planned to appeal the judge’s ruling, which came after several lawsuits were filed against the suspension of Madrid Central. The Socialists, which form part of the opposition in Madrid, joined Greenpeace and other environmental groups in taking the new mayor’s team to court.

The new mayor’s team has challenged some of the data that showed an improvement in air quality since Madrid Central came into force. This past week, it presented air-quality measurements showing that pollution had worsened in areas around the restricted zone. Greenpeace said, however, the latest data had been “manipulated” by the new mayor to justify his policy.

Mr. Martínez-Almeida, who was the mayoral candidate of Spain’s main conservative party, took office last month with the backing of a right-wing coalition that includes Vox, Spain’s ultranationalist party.

During the municipal election campaign for the municipal elections, Mr. Martínez-Almeida pledged to undo the agenda of the previous far-left mayor, Manuela Carmena, who installed Madrid Central last year, partly to comply with a warning from the European Commission that Madrid risked a fine if it failed to meet its clean-air targets.

In Friday’s ruling, the judge also noted that Madrid Central was introduced “to comply with European and international law relating to air pollution.”

As environmental campaigners noted after Mr. Martínez-Almeida moved to reverse the policy, Madrid Central reflected a growing trend among cities of restricting downtown traffic. London introduced a Congestion Charge for drivers in its central area in 2003, and brought in tighter restrictions on more polluting vehicles in April this year. New York is scheduled to become the first American city with a congestion pricing system in 2021.

On Thursday, Madrid’s administration met with environmentalists to debate the future of Madrid Central. After the meeting, a City Hall official, Borja Carabante, told local reporters that the goal was to establish “an alternative model” that could come into force in October and would also aim to improve air quality.

After the judge’s ruling, Madrid’s city government issued a statement saying it believed its moratorium had been in compliance with Spanish law, and that it had been a response to repeated problems with the system of security cameras used to identify vehicles entering Madrid Central.

Before leaving office, the previous city administration said that it had canceled 6,000 fines as a result of mistaken identity since the system came into force.

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