A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

A Bridge Too Far

Germany's infrastructure is endangered by both politics and bureaucracy.
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For all its renown for engineering and efficiency, Germany faces a growing backlog of essential infrastructure repairs – a problem made more difficult by the country’s complex bureaucratic divisions and Berlin’s emphasis on maintaining a balanced budget.

© REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

Anna, a friend of mine who lives outside Cologne, has two options to get to work: She can get into her car by 7:30 AM and hope to get to her desk by 9. Or, if she’s running late, she can wait until after 11 before heading for her desk at Bayer in nearby Leverkusen.

The reason: crumbling infrastructure, which means Anna’s commute, which should take 30 minutes, takes three times that on a good day – and many times longer on a bad one.

Anna’s nemesis is the Leverkusen Bridge, a 50-year-old structure that has been closed to heavy goods traffic since engineers discovered major rips in its steel structure two years ago. Rather than repair the bridge, a crucial part of the A1 Autobahn, city leaders have reduced the car lanes from six to four.

The Leverkusen Bridge is just one of 2,500 in Germany that has slipped from needing serious repairs to being a public danger over the past decade. These crumbling bridges are just part of a wider trend in Germany, where infrastructure investment as a percentage of total economic spending dropped from around 25 percent in 1991 to below 20 percent in 2015.

Some see a worrying symmetry between the Merkel-era push for balanced budgets and the rapid decline in infrastructure spending. In the Merkel decade up to 2015, Der Spiegel calculated that investment in German motorways halved to just €1.5 billion annually.

So why have things become so bad, and who is to blame?

German economic minister Sigmar Gabriel, head of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), asked a commission to investigate the problem. Headed by economist Marcel Fratzscher of Berlin’s German Institute for Economic Research (or DIW Berlin), the report it published pointed to two problems. First, years of pressure from Berlin to balance budgets forced federal states and municipal authorities to cut all infrastructure repair work to the bone. Second, infrastructure repairs in Germany are a bureaucratic nightmare, with ownership of major motorways and bridges often divided between federal authorities in Berlin, one or more of Germany’s 16 state capitals, and local authorities.

“Federal states are overwhelmed by this task,” Prof Fratzscher, who also teaches macroeconomics and finance at Berlin’s Humboldt University, told Der Spiegel, urging the ownership of crucial infrastructure be transferred to a central authority overseen by the federal government.

And what of the financial concerns? Officials close to federal finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble bristle at criticism that their balanced budget demands have caused the infrastructure backlog.

Schäuble’s officials say their ministry made €13 billion available for infrastructure spending in 2015 – but just €2 billion was drawn, as state governments had no capacity to submit plans entitled to funding.

“Even if we wanted to invest €5-€10 billion more, there would not be any start-ready projects there,” complained Jens Spahn, deputy finance minister, to Der Spiegel earlier this month.

While Berlin blames federal states for cutting back on engineers able to draft and submit plans for overdue repair work, state capitals disagree. Berlin’s obsession with balanced budgets, they say, not only forced them to drop big ticket spending projects – but also to fire idle engineers and planners.

Nowhere is Germany’s depreciation dilemma more obvious than in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Europe’s largest urban conurbation and home to one in five Germans. There has been so little investment in infrastructure here that, according to Der Spiegel, NRW has let go of 1,500 planning officials in recent years.

As a result, the rail and road arteries that keep the Rhine-Ruhr region alive have fallen into the same decline as its heavy industry. One in three rail bridges here is more than a century old. German car lobby group ADAC estimates that traffic jams in NRW in 2015 totaled 323,000 kilometers – almost the distance from the earth to the moon.

But this isn’t just about unsexy things like bridges and roads: according to the public KfW bank, Germany’s ramshackle schools need €34 billion to fix as well.

A year ahead of Germany’s federal election, the decline in public infrastructure could become a campaign issue. Senior SPD officials around leader Gabriel are urging him to make a dramatic ideological reversal to clear Germany’s investment backlog. Historically low interest rates and Germany’s triple-A rating mean Berlin can borrow – at effectively no cost – the billions it needs for repairs.

But even borrowed billions are useless if no political compromise emerges to streamline infrastructure ownership and repair planning. And apart from hand-wringing, years of debate on this front have yielded few discernible results. Germany’s various layers of government are so effective at defending their competences while passing blame on to others that it may take a collapsed bridge to force change.

“We Germans hear about our record exports, our record employment rates and our record tax takings, yet there’s no money for our infrastructure,” says Anna, my Cologne friend. “If you want to see German infrastructure efficiency these days, go to Switzerland.”