MILAN (Reuters) - Drivers will have to pay a "pollution charge" to enter Milan's city centre from Wednesday in what the Italian financial capital bills as a trend-setting way to cut smog.
Milan's "EcoPass", launched as a one-year trial, is aimed at the 89,000 vehicles that each day clog the middle of the northern Italian city, where pollution readings often top European Union limits.
The charge is being billed as the first of its kind among European cities. London, which took the lead in congestion charging in 2003, is preparing a pollution fee on lorries, buses and coaches entering its first "low-emission zone" from February 4.
Other Italian cities are taking steps to control smog stemming from one of the world's highest levels of car ownership. Rome launched measures on Tuesday that include limits on the most-polluting diesel vehicles and Turin is considering a pollution fee for its city centre.
"This is a new way to deal with the problem of pollution and health," Milan mayor Letizia Moratti told Il Giornale newspaper in an interview published on Monday.
"This is a model that a lot of cities are looking at with interest," she said. Moratti added she would outline the programme to United Nations officials in the next few weeks.
The fee will be measured on pollutants emitted by vehicles, based on five engine classes.
Drivers must pay between 2 and 10 euros (1.50 and 7.40 pounds) during weekday daytime hours to drive in the congested inner city, an area of just over eight square km (three square miles).
Cameras at 43 electric gates will monitor vehicles to ensure they have paid, or to levy fines of 70 euros and more. Estimated revenue of 24 million euros this year is earmarked for buses, new bicycle paths and green vehicles.
Milan is often shrouded in haze and its residents often complain of sore throats and itchy eyes from pollution.
Many European cities are struggling to meet EU limits on fine particulate matter, a major cause of respiratory illnesses. Milan estimates the charge will cut the pollutant in the area by almost a third.
Vehicles using alternative power such as methane and electricity as well as ambulances, motorcycles, buses, taxis and vehicles delivering perishable goods will be exempt. Residents of the zone can seek a discount.
Some critics argue that the pollution charge should not just be an extra tax on drivers. Others want wider action.
"Car exhaust is an important source of particulate matter but it's not the only one," Guido Giuseppe Lanzani, head of the air quality department at Lombardy's regional environmental protection agency, told Reuters.