Crumbling infrastructure threatens German growth
Infrastructure woes are slowing German economic growth Shoddy roads make “Germany a less attractive place to invest”
On a typical weekday, hundreds of heavy trucks arrive at Chempark Leverkusen, a sprawling complex of refineries near the Rhine River in western Germany. For the past two years, the trucks have been forced to make long detours to avoid a crumbling Autobahn bridge that dates to when the Beatles were singing Twist and Shout in Hamburg. Designed in the early 1960s to carry 40,000 cars a day, the span today sees three times that number—and it’s barely holding up. After hundreds of cracks were discovered, authorities closed the bridge to trucks and reduced the speed limit to 60 kilometers per hour (37 mph). “It’s stressful for our workers and damaging for all the companies involved,” says Ernst Grigat, who oversees Chempark and other sites for Currenta, a property management company. “And it’s also a growth barrier for our economy, which needs good infrastructure.”
German roads, ports, and bridges still look pretty solid compared with the U.S.’s, and roads in the eastern part of Germany are in relatively good shape since being updated after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But highways and bridges in the west often date to the 1960s and ’70s, and their shoddy state is presenting a challenge to the country that created the Autobahn, a highway system that in many places has no speed limit. The concerns have been compounded by the delays and cost overruns of high-profile projects: Stuttgart’s underground train station is at least two years behind schedule, and a new Berlin airport originally slated to open in 2011 remains years from completion. (Some say it will never open.)
Germany has dropped to No. 7 in the World Economic Forum’s infrastructure rankings, from third in 2013. About 15 percent of its 70,000 bridges are in “critical” condition and half are substandard, according to the German Institute of Urban Affairs, a publicly funded researcher. With roads deteriorating, the number of traffic jams jumped 20 percent last year, to 568,000, according to auto club ADAC. The government is underfunding the system by at least €10 billion ($11.2 billion) annually, says Marcel Fratzscher, president of the DIW Institute for Economic Research in Berlin. “We can see the economic damage” from deteriorating roads and bridges. “Companies say bad transport infrastructure makes Germany a less attractive place to invest.”
Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt said in March that he plans to invest €264.5 billion in roads, railways, and waterways through 2030, with most of the money used just to maintain current infrastructure. “We know that we have serious catching up to do,” he said.
Finding the money to pay for those improvements hasn’t been easy. Eager to balance the budget, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has kept a lid on infrastructure spending. While trucks must pay to use the Autobahn, cars travel its highways for free. Tolls to cover maintenance—which Austria, France, and Switzerland charge—are so unpopular that the topic is one that many German politicians would rather not touch. And the country faces billions of euros in unanticipated spending to cope with the million refugees who arrived last year.
Germany may need to rethink how it builds its highways, says Wulf-Holger Arndt, a researcher at the Institute of Urban Affairs. Many German roads weren’t designed to handle the weight of today’s big commercial vehicles, and the government should craft policies that encourage companies to move more goods by train, he says. “A 24-ton truck does as much damage to a road as 10,000 cars.”
For now, there’s no fixing structures like the A1 bridge near Cologne. The span is in such dire shape that authorities have to build a new one, which may not be done for a decade. Construction delays will likely slow traffic for years in the Cologne region, home to 3.5 million people, says Ulrich Soénius, deputy head of the local chamber of commerce. “Traffic will only increase, so we need more investment to keep our economy growing,” he says. “The problem will be with us for a long time.” The bottom line While the government has kept spending in check, Germany’s roads and bridges have suffered, threatening economic growth.
“We know that we have serious catching up to do.” ——Alexander Dobrindt, transport minister