Disastrous Public Works Projects: A History of Political Deception in Germany
Berlin's airport debacle is turning into what seems like a never-ending scandal, with critics worrying the capital city has seriously damaged its image. But it's not the only place in Germany that has seen projects plagued by delays and exploding costs.
Germany, respected around the world for its famed efficiency, quality construction and world-class engineering, is taking a beating to its reputation this year, with major problems plaguing a number of major public projects.
Whether it's the dazzling new train station in Stuttgart, Berlin's stylish new airport or Hamburg's stunning new concert hall, major public infrastructure projects often look great on paper. The costs appear to be bearable and politicians seem euphoric when they present their grand plans, emphasizing how they will change the region. And of course they won't take very long to build, either, they say.
But then one deadline gives way to another. Burdened by protests, requests for costly extras or other demands, the train stations, rail lines, airports and even concert halls still haven't been built. Costs rise -- doubling or even quadrupling. The people are outraged and a city's entire reputation can suffer, as has proven to be the case in Berlin with the failure to complete the city's new international airport. Politicians are always happy to tout the success of completed projects, but if problems creep up in their construction, few are willing to take any responsibility.
In many instances, the false calculations are deliberate. Werner Rothengatter, a researcher at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, has studied major public works projects around the world. He says there's a similar pattern in democratic societies, where politicians have a tendency to deceive the public about the actual costs of these projects.
Rothengatter argues that cost overruns rarely come as a surprise -- regardless of whether they are from the Berlin airport or Hamburg's new Elbphilharmonie concert hall. During his research, he found that most politicians try to calculate the price to be as low as possible in order to obtain support for the projects -- deliberately veiling the potential risks.
"Those who provide honest estimates for projects from the very beginning have little chance of getting them off the ground," Rothengatter claims. Often those at the political helm take a calculated risk by assuming they won't be held personally responsible if the costs start to explode.
In a 2009 study, "Survival of the Unfittest: Why the Worst Infrastructure Gets Built," Danish researcher Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University argued that it often isn't the best projects that are completed, but those that "are made to look best on paper." Those, of course, are projects that "amass the highest cost overruns and benefit shortfalls."
Politicians Lack Expertise
An additional problem is that the supervisory boards overseeing these projects are often filled with politicians who have no expertise when it comes to major infrastructure projects, as evidenced in the case of the Berlin airport, where both Mayor Klaus Wowereit and Brandenburg Governor Matthias Platzeck (whose state is also a shareholder) are board members. But the administrators who are actually responsible for the day-to-day work on these projects are often hopelessly overextended.
Why, then, do amateurs take on these massive projects?
The reason is simple: Politicians are afraid of hiring general contractors to run the projects. Professionals are able to set a firm price, but it is often a much higher one than politicians would be able to sell to their constituents. In the case of the Berlin airport, it was put out to bid twice because the lowest offer during the first effort came in at 70 percent higher than the 620 million ($817 million) that Berlin, Brandenburg and the federal government were prepared to shell out. In the end, the government bodies opted to assume management responsibility for the project themselves. The cost of the terminal alone now is estimated to be at least 1.2 billion.
In that sense, nothing has changed over the years. In his study, Flyvbjerg concluded that deception when it comes to costs has been persistent in most of the countries studied over the past 70 years. From the very beginning costs are underestimated and benefits overestimated. Cost explosions occur most frequently on rail projects, with Flyvbjerg estimating that such projects end up costing, on average, 45 percent more than planned.
Germany is currently experiencing considerable problems with a number of major public works projects. SPIEGEL ONLINE has provided thumbnails of the biggest.
Germany's Foreign Intelligence Headquarters
Leipzig's City Tunnel
The Berlin-Brandenburg Airport (BER)
After a series of construction errors, no date has been given yet for the opening of Berlin's new international airport.
At least 2.3 billion in cost overruns are creating problems for the Stuttgart 21 train station project in the city of the same name.
However, the company said there are also 1.2 billion in "external risks" caused by mass protests against the project and changes made to accommodate critics. It is still unclear who will pay that bill. So far, city and state officials are refusing to cover those costs.
Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall
Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie concert hall was supposed to open in 2010. Now it will stage its first concerts in 2017 at the earliest.
Cologne's North-South Subway Line
In 2000, the estimated cost for the project was 600 million, but today it has soared to 1.04 billion. Part of the line has already opened, but no date has been given for when the entire route will be operational, and it could be 2019 or even 2022 before it is. City planners have potentially bigger worries this week. The part of the line that opened in December runs right next to Cologne's landmark cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Church officials claim trains running along the line are causing the massive structure to vibrate. "It cannot be ruled out that the (vibrations) could cause long-term damage to the structure," church Provost Norbert Feldhoff warned.
Munich's Second Commuter Rail Tunnel
Munich is planning a second tunnel through the city center to help relieve a bottleneck of S-Bahn commuter trains.
Berlin's Stadtschloss Palace
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