'A Money Pit Worth Billions' Is the Planned Denmark-Germany Bridge Worth It?

Plans to build a massive bridge between Germany and Denmark have hit a new snag. Danish taxpayers don't want to foot the bill; German taxpayers might pay a lot more than they've bargained for; and some say the bridge would see less traffic than a country road.

It took the German and Danish governments over 15 years to finally hammer out an agreement on building a bridge of "historic dimensions" between the countries. But now the project has hit rough waters again. Transport experts and a German court have now warned that the bridge is entirely unneeded and could turn into a "money pit worth billions to the German taxpayer." Meanwhile, a majority of Danes want the project ditched.

The 19-kilometer (11.8-mile) span is intended to connect the Baltic Sea cities of Puttgarden on the German island of Fehmarn and Rødby on the Danish island of Lolland. The bridge's supporters believe it will significantly ease trade between northern Scandinavia and the European mainland by complementing the 17-kilometer (10.5-mile) Oresend Bridge completed in 2000 between the Swedish city of Malmo and Copenhagen.

The original agreement had Danish taxpayers paying for and owning most of the €4.4 billion ($6 billion) project in the belief that the Denmark will derive more benefit from the bridge. But although the plan passed the Danish parliament in March, 54 percent of Danes have come out against the mega-project. To try to lower opposition to the plan, Danish politicians and planners have put a twist on the financing plan, saying that "the Danish taxpayers won't be the ones financing the project." Instead, they intend to levy a toll on bridge users.

But now the German Federal Audit Court and a number of independent experts are saying that something about using tolls to finance the costs smells fishy. Vieregg-Rössler, a Munich-based traffic consulting firm, has said that traffic predictions for the bridge -- and, therefore, the amount of money that can be raised from tolls -- have been "seriously overestimated." In fact, according to its estimates, the normal amount of traffic on the Fehmarn Strait route is so low that "on land, not even a two-lane local bypass would be worth funding." As is, plans envision the bridge bearing two railway tracks and a four-lane motorway.

Likewise, according to original estimates, the German contribution to the project was supposed to be limited to the estimated €1.2 billion needed to link the bridge's traffic into its own highway and railway infrastructure. But the audit court believes that such costs are underestimated. The court believes that, with such projects, a potential increase in costs of up to 100 percent must be calculated. If the financial requirements were to "develop significantly differently than estimated," German contract partners would be left with price renegotiations with "considerable uncertainties for future federal budgets."

According to Rainer Steenblock, a Green Party member of the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, and former environment secretary for the nearby city of Kiel, German taxpayers could potentially be threatened with "a money pit worth billions."

Chancellor Angela Merkel's government and German Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee back the project. German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel has called the plan "a loony idea" and and has expressed his shared concern with environmental protection groups that the project might harm the area's ecology.

Construction of the bridge is supposed to begin in 2012 and be completed by 2018.

-- jtw/spiegel
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