High in the Alpine vales where William Tell, the patriotic defender and crossbow sharpshooter of Swiss legend is said to have dwelt, people are facing another sort of invader these days: big trucks.
Tell, the story goes, refused to bow to the hat of the foreign Hapsburg emperor and, in 1291, created the nucleus of modern-day Switzerland with 30 other stouthearted men. The defiant archer, and the tale of how he shot an apple off his son's head, may be nothing but myth. But in Uri, Tell's home canton, the current problem is as real as diesel fumes and the din of shifting gears.
Each day, more than 3,600 tractor-trailers use the highway cutting through the Reuss valley of central Switzerland, hauling Italian-made apparel and other products northward to Germany or German goods headed south.
In the 18 years since the St. Gotthard Tunnel opened, creating the shortest road link between Latin and Teutonic Europe, the number of trucks rumbling through Uri has jumped by more than 560%--to 964,000 last year. The narrow walls of the conifer-fringed valley channel noise from the highway to the canton's biggest town, Altdorf, half a mile away. According to the local tourism office, visitors now avoid Uri because its very name is synonymous with "traffic jams and pollution."
"People are really fed up with the traffic that weighs more and more on their daily lives," Hansruedi Stadler, an elected official in Uri's government, told a Swiss newspaper recently. "It's become the No. 1 topic of conversation in the valley."
On Sept. 27, voters across Switzerland will decide whether to slap a special fee on each of the 1.2 million trucks that now cross the country annually. Truck traffic has doubled in four years, and many people are worried that growing European economic integration will bring even bigger increases in traffic.
At present, a truck transiting through Switzerland pays $17.85 in user fees, according to officials. If the referendum passes, starting in 2005 it will cost a truck up to $232 to go from one end of the country to the other.
What to do about trucks is a hot-button issue that has set the trucking lobby against the rail lobby, pro-Europeans against Swiss who want to stay out of the European Union, and environmentalists against business interests. At least one political party is split.
Whether the referendum passes or fails could also unleash a chain reaction of consequences. In 1994, Swiss voters passed a constitutional clause that will require freight crossing the Alps to travel by rail. The new tax on trucks, advocates say, should pay at least half the cost of upgrading the rail network so more goods can be shipped on trains.
For truckers, the silver lining could be bigger rigs. The Swiss have already promised neighboring countries that they will expand the maximum weight allowed on trucks, from 31 tons to the European standard of 41 tons. If the new tax is rejected at the polls, some say, citizen pressure to renege on the weight increase could become so great that it could jeopardize a wide-ranging trade agreement under negotiation with the European Union.