What if . . . Germany doesn’t get its act together on infrastructure?

Spending crisis sees bridges slip from needing serious repairs to being public danger

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s re-election for a fourth term was thwarted in dramatic fashion on Sunday after the collapse – 48 hours before the 2017 federal election – of the Leverkusen Bridge in Cologne with the loss of 112 lives.

Engineers discovered major rips in the bridge’s steel structure in November 2013 and, as an emergency measure, ordered a ban on heavy goods vehicles. Traffic on the A1 Autobahn bridge was reduced from six lanes to four but urgent repairs were never carried out.

Last Friday afternoon, in middle of rush-hour traffic, the Leverkusen side of the 50 year-old structure gave way. An estimated 75 vehicles plunged into the icy waters of the River Rhine below, drowning around 100 drivers and passengers in their cars. Some 12 more were killed by falling pieces of the rusting bridge structure, while over 200 people on or near the bridge at the time were treated for shock.

After suspending campaigning, Chancellor Merkel travelled to the Cologne crash scene on Saturday morning but was booed by angry families who have set up a makeshift vigil to the dead.

In the emotional aftermath, families have blamed Dr Merkel’s government for the collapse, in particular “budgetary brake” legislation that forced Germany’s cities and federal states to balance their budgets – often, critics say, at the expense of infrastructure spending.

After a dramatic last-minute swing in support, Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Sigmar Gabriel is likely to become the new chancellor in a three-way coalition with Greens and Left Party.

Campaign promise

A key SPD campaign promise was a multibillion “infrastructure emergency” investment programme, based on the findings of an October 2016 report from Mr Gabriel’s economics ministry.

It showed how infrastructure investment, as a percentage of total economic spending, dropped from around 25 per cent in 1991 to below 20 per cent in 2015.

In addition, the report illustrated how, as successive Merkel administrations pursued a balanced federal budget in the decade to 2015, its investment in motorways halved to just €1.5 billion annually.

Mr Gabriel promised to end what he called a “decade of decay”, where continuous negative investment saw 2,500 bridges in Germany slip from needing serious repairs to being a public danger, like the Leverkusen Bridge.

Another priority for Germany’s new centre-left administration is a reversal of a spending freeze in schools that, according to state bank KfW, has created an €34 billion investment and modernisation backlog.

For many Germans, the collapse of the Leverkusen Bridge came as a tragedy – but no surprise.

In October 2016 a commission appointed by Mr Gabriel and headed by economist Marcel Fratzscher published a report into Germany’s deteriorating infrastructure.

At the report’s presentation, Prof Fratzscher said Germany’s problem was two-fold. First, years of pressure from Berlin to balance their budgets had seen federal states and municipal authorities cut to the bone all infrastructure repair work.

Second, infrastructure repairs are a bureaucratic nightmare in Germany, where federal structures mean that ownership of major motorways and bridges are often divided between Berlin, state capitals and local authorities.

“Federal states are overwhelmed by this task,” said Prof Fratzscher a year ago, urging the ownership transfer of crucial infrastructure to a central authority overseen by the federal government.

Prof Fratzscher’s arguments have helped outgoing finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble deflect criticism in recent days that his balanced budget demands caused the Leverkusen Bridge tragedy.

Submit plans

In 2015, Dr Schäuble’s officials say their ministry made €13 billion available for infrastructure spending – but just €2 billion was drawn down 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 Mr Jens Spahn, deputy finance minister, to Der Spiegel magazine in October 2015.

While Berlin blames federal states for cutting back on engineers able to draft and submit overdue repair work, state capitals have hit back angrily. Berlin’s obsession with balanced budgets, they say, forced them to drop big-ticket spending projects – and 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 that is 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.

And this while rail and road arteries in the Rhine-Ruhr industrial region decline with 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 totalled 323,000 kilometres – almost the distance from the earth to the moon.

Back on planet earth, as Chancellor Angela Merkel leaves office under a cloud of tragedy, leader-in-waiting Sigmar Gabriel has vowed a dramatic ideological reversal to clear Germany's investment backlog.

Low interest rates and Germany’s triple-A rating means Berlin can borrow – at almost no cost – the billions it needs to repair its crumbling infrastructure.

But money – or lack of it – is not the only barrier to change. Long-term critics of German under-investment in infrastructure say no political compromise has yet emerged between Berlin, federal state capitals and local authorities to streamline ownership and planning structures to allow repairs to get underway – and avoid a second Leverkusen Bridge tragedy.

Back in Cologne, locals are still numbed by the tragedy, wary of investment promises and furious at the days of pass-the-parcel over political responsibility.

“We Germans hear about our record exports, our record employment rates and our record tax takings yet there’s no money for our infrastructure,” said local woman Anna Adam in a cafe at Cologne main train station. “Until now our disastrous infrastructure just ruined our day. But since the bridge collapse we now see: it can ruin lives, too.”

Note: The Leverkusen Bridge is in dire need of repair, like 2,500 others in Germany, but has not collapsed – yet. The tragedy and its political consequences are fictional. All other details are not.

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