Stuttgart 21, a deeply controversial plan to give the prosperous south-western German city a brand new main train station, has been troubling Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives for months because it has triggered protests by thousands of local people bitterly opposed to the 4.1 billion ($5.4 billion) prestige project.
The demonstrations have helped fan support for the opposition Greens party, which has backed the demonstrators, ahead of an important election in the state of Baden-Württemberg, of which Stuttgart is the capital, in March.
Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party has ruled Baden-Württemberg for nearly 60 years and a defeat would be a major blow to her authority, both within the party and as chancellor. The Baden-Württemberg vote is one of seven regional elections next year.
The protesters believe the station is too expensive and was planned without enough prior public consultation. After demolition work on parts of the 80-year-old station began in the summer, tens of thousands of demonstrators turned out week upon week calling for the project to be abandoned.
On Tuesday, after weeks of negotiations between the two sides in an arbitration committee set up to resolve the dispute, an arbitration ruling was announced by the mediator, Heiner Geissler, 80, a former top CDU official.
Geissler said the project should go ahead, and attached some non-binding demands for improvements, including that real estate speculators should be banned from building on the area vacated by the train station, which is being moved underground. Other demands included preserving as many trees as possible, better fire safety measures and more platforms.
German media commentators say the ruling is a clear victory for railway operator Deutsche Bahn and for the center-right state government led by CDU governor Stefan Mappus. Scrapping a project that has gone through all the necessary approval procedures would have entailed enormous costs and would have damaged Germany's reputation as place of industry and modernization, newspapers said.
But the arbitration ruling was an important signal to authorities in Germany that the public should be more closely involved in the planning of major projects in future, commentators said. That lesson has come too late for Stuttgart 21, though, and the protests are widely expected to continue.
Business daily Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"Geissler's arbitration has winners -- the railway and the center-right state government -- and losers -- the protesters who just wanted a refurbishment of the existing station. In order to convert such a decision into a lasting agreement between the two sides, one would need a state governor capable of now steering developments with sensitivity and with tact. Baden-Württemberg's governor, Stefan Mappus, isn't exactly blessed with those qualities."
"That could lead to the opposing sides becoming more entrenched again. Because Geissler gave both sides arguments to justify their opposing views."
Conservative Die Welt writes:
"The opponents of Stuttgart 21 thought it would be possible, through a public campaign, to overturn a process that has gone through years of proper approval procedures. Geissler said a decisive 'No' to that. The Stuttgart debate has been given a dose of reality.
"Whoever wins the state election next March will have to continue with the Stuttgart 21 project."
Business daily Handelsblatt writes:
"Heiner Geissler resisted the temptation to propose a referendum on Stuttgart 21, a move that would have allowed him an elegant way out of the proceedings. Instead, the experienced tactician made concessions to the critics in some points but recommended going ahead with the planned underground station. It was impossible to reach a compromise between cancelling construction and going ahead with it. The horrendous costs of abandoning a project worth billions and the fact that everything had planning approval permitted only one decision -- to carry on."
"The opponents of Stuttgart 21 had hoped to be able to scrap the project. A few will bow to the arbitration ruling, but most of them will go on demonstrating. Shortly after the verdict was announced in the Stuttgart town hall, the angry noise of thousands of protesters outside could be heard through its thick walls."
Mass circulation Bild writes:
"The arbitration ruling by Heiner Geissler was clear and correct. Significant improvements will now be made. That was the best one could hope for. Building Stuttgart 21 isn't just an important signal for Baden-Württemberg, but for the whole of Germany as an industrial location. It would have been a huge mistake to bury -- via a referendum or by whatever means -- a project that was planned and approved legally. By scrapping construction, Germany would have embarrassed itself as a country of stagnation!"
Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The arbitration came too late for a really good solution, it was the belated product of a popular uprising. No one can correct the mistakes of 20 years in just nine meetings and 100 hours. But the experience gained in this arbitration must revolutionize the way future large-scale projects are planned. The arbitration was the rediscovery of the citizen. That won't help Stuttgart, but it will help democracy. If Geissler's arbitration inspires the future planning of large projects, then citizens will in future get a real say in how projects are planned."
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