Germany’s infrastructure rusts as politicians fiddle

Budget curbs and decades of neglect causing structural meltdown in industrial heartland

No amount of aspirin can cure the headaches doing the rounds at its inventor, Bayer. The German healthcare giant is the biggest name in a vast industrial cluster that employs 40,000 people on either side of the Rhine, near Cologne. But doing business or even getting to work here is a daily battle through a rusting, crumbling infrastructure.

For Bayer the problem is the Leverkusen Bridge that spans the Rhine and links two production plants. Erected half a century ago, the cable bridge is a crucial artery on the A1 Autobahn for commuters and businesses.

But last month construction workers discovered serious rips in the steel structure. Traffic was reduced from six lanes to four – and articulated lorries over 3.5 tonnes banned.

That is a nuisance on such a vital cross-country artery, forcing trucks crossing Germany and the continent to take detours of up to 30km across other ageing bridges.


For companies like Bayer, the bridge closure is a disaster. "Around 500 trucks have to take detours each day, companies in our cluster complain that their staff can't get to work," says Ernst Grigat, site manager of the "Chempark" industrial cluster, whose office overlooks the bridge. "It was always repaired and patched up, at this stage, that makes no sense anymore."

With a replacement at least a decade away, this has proven a bridge too far in a long-running saga.

Most populous state

North Rhine-Westphalia is home to one in five Germans and is Germany’s most populous state. For years now people in its Rhine-Ruhr region have become used to temperamental trains on rail bottlenecks or biblical tailbacks on an ageing Autobahn network. People here obsess over traffic the way New Yorkers obsess over rent. Electricians in western Cologne refuse jobs in the east end of town because the chronic traffic jams make it not worth their while. The 30km trip from Cologne to Bonn, once a zippy 25 minutes, is now a 90 minute crawl.

Local woman Anna Adam says the traffic influences every decision she takes every day. The 31-year-old's daily round- trip commute of 50km should take 50 minutes in the car on a good day, but usually takes twice that. The Bavarian native says traffic in Cologne and the region is as bad as in Mexico, where she lived for six years.

Waiting in Cologne train station, and dreading a looming trip to Frankfurt, Adam sees the infrastructure meltdown as part of a wider decline. “We rested on our laurels, got complacent, and forgot that the things we inherited need to be maintained,” she says.

But taking things for granted is just one reason why the Rhine-Ruhr industrial heartland is now such an unholy mess. From the ruins of war, this region was rebuilt in the 1960s economic miracle as a car-friendly economic powerhouse. Cities grew into each other to create Europe’s largest urban conurbation, almost eight times the size of Co Dublin and home to 11 million people. A densely populated region like this swims – or sinks – on its infrastructure. But by the 1980s, as locals began to take their infrastructure as a given, the first cracks began to appear.

The coal mines shrank, big industrial names like Thyssen and Krupp merged, jobless rates rose. From Duisburg to Dortmund, cities were already struggling to adapt to a new post-industrial reality when the Berlin Wall fell.

Rebuilding the east took priority over retooling the west. And so while eastern states and cities needed – and got – new roads, new bridges, new everything, western Germany’s 1960s infrastructure was merely patched up.

Volker Meertz, secretary of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Cologne, says the eastern spending in the last quarter century was necessary. But to pay their share, western German states and cities plundered their infrastructure budgets, he says, then plundered them again to pay for a spike in social spending caused by structural decline.

An expensive crown

“But infrastructure is like a set of teeth,” he says. “If you don’t deal with the cavity in time, soon you need an expensive crown.”

But who has the money for expensive dental work? On Thursday in Berlin, western state governors warned chancellor Angela Merkel that when the current “eastern solidarity” plan expires in 2019, its successor must prioritise infrastructure spending by urgency – not geography. Eastern state leaders will put up a fight to this, says CDU politician Karsten Möhring, but closing Leverkusen Bridge to lorries was, he says, a “wake-up call”.

"But getting things back on track is going to take us 20 years," says Möhring, a Bundestag infrastructure committee member and once a local politician in Cologne.

Compounding the problem of crumbling roads and bridges is Germany’s decentralised government structure, meaning federal, state and municipal authorities own different pieces of the puzzle.

Competing competences

Add rivalries between political parties and cities – between the CDU and Social Democrats (SPD), say, or Cologne and Düsseldorf – and you have a cacophony of competing competences. Trying to get an overview of what needs to be done, and by whom, is impossible because no one thinks outside their own box.

“This problem is so vast, yet our structures are so fragmented,” concedes Ulf Reichardt, chief executive of Cologne Chamber of Commerce (IHK). “What we need is long-term infrastructure fund running over several electoral periods and outside existing budgets and political structures.”

But if there is one point in Germany’s infrastructure debate on which almost all parties agree: the repair cannot be paid for with borrowed money.

Berlin has just balanced the federal budget for the first time since 1969, now state governments are under pressure to follow suit. Low interest rates means Germany could borrow money effectively for free to pay today for the infrastructure it needs yesterday. But no one wants to go there and, instead, politicians say they can cobble together money from existing budgets, such as by curbing wasteful spending.

Economist Gustav Horn says it is "completely wrong" for Germany's politicians to present their balanced budget push as sustainable politics for the future. "If this is bought at the price of a crumbling infrastructure, then it is the complete opposite," says Prof Horn of Germany's IMK macroeconomic research institute to WDR television.

And all the while the clock ticks. A quarter of federally-owned bridges will reach the end of their life within the next decade. Mayors of NRW cities, many so indebted they no longer control their own municipal budgets, are demanding €500 million a year to bring their infrastructure up to scratch. In Cologne, a study pegged the economic cost of closing the Leverkusen Bridge at €108 million per quarter.

Juncker investment plan

Bowing to the challenge, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble has promised an extra €10 billion for infrastructure spending. Other pressing projects have been earmarked as German candidates for the new Juncker investment plan, to be discussed at next week’s EU summit.

But as Germany coasts along on yesterday’s infrastructural substance, and its politicians worry about tomorrow’s debt burden, people like Anna Adam in Cologne wonder who cares about their ordeal today.

"We Germans hear about our record exports, record employment rates and record tax takings yet somehow there's no money for our infrastructure," she said. Finishing her coffee, she adds: "If you want to see German efficiency these days, go to Switzerland. "

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin