Ailing Infrastructure Scrimping Threatens Germany's Future
Part 2: Rotting Roadways
The building looks like the bridge of a spaceship. Staff members dim the overhead lamps and green, yellow and red lights are blinking everywhere. The large monitors under the ceiling don't provide an expansive view of outer space, though. They transmit live images of traffic on North Rhine-Westphalia's autobahns.
In late April, the Düsseldorf Ministry of Transportation opened this new control center in a bid to deal with its increasingly congested highways. Indeed, many of the county's bridges and autobahns still date back to the 1970s. They are rusting and crumbling everywhere, and can no longer handle the continuously rising volume of traffic. Recently, the bridge over the Rhine River near Leverkusen was closed to trucks for a number of weeks, backing up traffic for miles. This is not just a headache for North Rhine-Westphalia, but all of western Germany. Major freight traffic routes to Western Europe pass through the state.
According to studies commissioned by North Rhine-Westphalia Transport Minister Michael Groschek (SPD), the state's entire highway infrastructure is in desolate condition. Of the 100 bridges inspected so far, 80 are in desperate need of repairs and maintenance. An additional 700 inspections still need to be conducted, yet Groschek already estimates that some 4.2 billion must be invested. "And things don't look any different with many railway bridges, highways and canals," he says, adding that some rail bridges are more than 100 years old.
Regional newspapers are already referring to the area's "terminal gridlock," and some companies are wondering how long they will still be able to ship their manufactured goods to the global market. One of these companies has its headquarters in the Siegen-Wittgenstein region, just east of Cologne. SMS Siemag has a global workforce of 13,500 and produces huge high-tech rolling stands for new steel mills. These machine components weigh up to 400 metric tons, and it takes weeks of precision work to manufacture them at the plant in Hilchenbach, Germany. "Up until then, we have everything well under control," says CEO Burkhard Dahmen.
But then comes the transportation.
The components have to be trucked down to large ships in the port of Hamburg or the inland harbor at Duisburg -- and this has become an odyssey. Many bridges and highways in North Rhine-Westphalia are no longer rated to handle the immense loads. They could literally collapse under the weight.
When the logistics professionals map out a route, it takes ages for the shipments to arrive. "They're on the road sometimes for over a week before they reach the seaport of Hamburg," says Dahmen. The trip used to take just one day, but now there are sometimes no passable routes due to construction or closed highways. Then the company runs the risk of paying large contractual penalties because timely deliveries are a standard element of international business agreements.
Transport Minister Groschek has promised to help companies like SMS Siemag, but it remains to be seen how he intends to finance the necessary work on the highway network. After all, this is not the only region where the infrastructure is crumbling. Some 20 percent of the nation's autobahns and over 40 percent of federal roads need repair.
A Meager Transportation Budget
The condition of the railway network is not much better. Volker Kefer, the board member responsible for technology at Germany's national railway operator, Deutsche Bahn, calculates that if the company actually pressed ahead with all modernization and expansion projects that have been planned and budgeted, it couldn't launch any new projects until the year 2030.
Nevertheless, there is a massive investment backlog. Deutsche Bahn should actually be expanding important transportation hubs like Cologne and Hamburg, meeting international obligations like the Fehmarn Belt crossing between Germany and Denmark, and improving noise-reduction measures along freight routes. But there is little to no funding available for all of this. "We have to make up our minds in Germany," says Kefer. "Either the federal government invests more money, or we will soon reach our capacity limits."
There is a simple reason why the world's fourth largest economy -- and the most important transit country in Europe -- maintains a poorer transportation network in some instances than many emerging nations. The transportation budget is chronically underfinanced. The DIW experts have meticulously calculated that between 2006 and 2011 alone, the federal government, states and municipalities annually invested nearly 4 billion too little in maintaining Germany's over 650,000 kilometer (400,000 miles) of highways and its railway network encompassing some 40,000 kilometers (25,000 miles) of tracks.
Since this tradition of bleeding the country dry extends back to the 1990s, there is an enormous need for investment, the researchers conclude. If Germany intends to adequately maintain its existing infrastructure, it will have to spend an additional 6.5 billion -- year after year.
Falling Behind with Internet Connections
Patience is not exactly one of Ute Gabriel-Boucsein's best qualities. "We were fed up with the endless waiting, the excuses and inaction of the big companies," she says. The resolute woman from the North Friesian town of Husum on the North Sea coast, not far from the Danish border, runs a fairly unique company with an equally unique name: BürgerBreitbandNetz ("CitizensBroadbandNetwork").
Founded over a year ago, the company has some 850 owners, all of them residents of Husum and surrounding communities. Collectively, they have invested some 2 million as shareholders in the company.
The North Friesians intend to use the money to build a hyper-speed Internet. Over the next seven years, some 20,000 households and companies in 59 communities will be linked via a network of state-of-the-art fiber-optic cables. The plan requires an investment of roughly 70 million.
The idea was hatched over two years ago out of sheer desperation. Without a fast Internet connection, it was no longer possible to sell properties, building sites and commercial lots in the thinly populated region, according to Gabriel-Boucsein, who says that "the region was in danger of hemorrhaging." And since the state offered few direct options and companies like Deutsche Telekom have no interest in sinking too much money into an area with so few inhabitants, the North Friesians have developed their own modernization plan. Work has already begun on one segment, and when it is completed the first families will be provided with phone service, their own homepage and a turbo Internet connection with speeds of 50 megabits per second.
It's hard to believe, but when it comes to one of the most important technologies of the 21st-century, namely building a nationwide high-speed Internet network, Germany is in danger of lagging behind the rest of the international community.
Although German industry and leading technology gurus are calling for the establishment of a high-speed fiber-optic network, little progress has been made. In a study published late last year, Germany came in almost last -- far outranked by countries like Lithuania, Bulgaria and Romania.
Germany's decades-old copper cable network won't be able to keep up with the rapidly increasing amounts of data and transfer speeds that will come to dominate development in the coming years. Experts like Torsten Gerpott from the University of Duisburg-Essen say that without fiber-optic cables Germany will simply no longer be a major international player.
Chancellor Merkel says that she wants to see 75 percent of all Germans have a high-speed broadband connection by the year 2014. But that's hardly feasible. Speeds of up to 10 megabits are the norm these days. The switchover to fiber-optic cables would cost over 80 billion -- and no one knows where the money is supposed to come from. The state can't raise this amount of money, and Deutsche Telekom is being held back by the Federal Network Agency, which oversees the sector. Telekom CEO René Obermann complains that for a long time the agency was only interested in reducing phone and Internet rates, a fashionable policy that brought in votes.
But Germany's strict price regulations made it impossible for companies to build up the necessary billions of euros in reserves to build new networks. There isn't enough funding -- just as there is a dearth of cash to implement one of the country's key industrial projects for the future, the Energiewende, Germany's plan to phase out nuclear energy and massively increase its reliance on renewable sources.