The Genoa bridge collapse on Saturday, 11 August with the loss of 39 lives and still counting has precipitated extensive discussion in European media about infrastructure weaknesses elsewhere on the Continent. Typical of this genre, an article in yesterday’s Figaro served up its content in the headline: “In France, 30% of the bridges managed by the State are in need of reconstruction.” To understand the scale of the assignment, there are 200,000 bridges on the roads of France.
In Germany, the online edition of the mainstream newspaper Die Welt published an article two days ago with a similar message: “Two-thirds of the German highway bridges are in an alarming state.” (https://www.welt.de/wirtschaft/article181181806/Nach-Genua-So-werden-die-deutschen-Bruecken-geprueft.html) We are told that only one-quarter of the bridges are in good condition. A number of major bridges are and will remain closed to truck traffic because they are too fragile.
The article describes the system of inspections of the bridges. It goes on to say that the problematic bridges are only the tip of the iceberg: “Since the year 2,000 the condition of bridge surfaces considered to be in ‘very good’ or ‘good’ condition has more than halved.” In cases of unsatisfactory condition, the speed limits on such bridges will be drastically reduced and they may be closed to commercial vehicles of certain weight categories.
Die Welt notes that the problem extends beyond major highways to local roads, where 10,000 bridges must be replaced by 2030, affecting 15% of all communal roads in Germany. The investment cost of the replacement will be 11 billion euros. Indeed, one out of two of the local bridges is in poor condition and requires repairs. Implementing this would raise the overall investment needs to 16 billion.
Meanwhile, also on 15 August Bloomberg online news published a feature article looking at the problem more broadly: “Germany’s Infrastructure Skids Into Crisis on Merkel’s Autobahn,” by Leonard Kahnscherper. Here we find at the outset a key generalization about the problem:
“[Germany’s] once envied network of roads, bridges and railways are decaying due to decades of underspending. The country has fallen to 15th in road quality behind Oman and Portugal, according to the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness rankings…”
True to its economic and business focus, Bloomberg remarks that traffic jams resulting from the inadequate road system cost the German economy more than 60 billion euros a year from wasted working time and delivery delays.
Put in the broader perspective of overall infrastructure, Bloomberg finds that the investment gap for German municipalities amounted to 159 billion euros in 2017, of which roughly a quarter was for traffic infrastructure. To this one must add the national and regional projects. Their research shows that “Germany’s net investment has been negative throughout most of Merkel’s reign.” Simply put, money spent by the government fails to keep up with wear and tear.
Bloomberg likens the road decay with the failure to keep up with technological change in digital networks, where Germany is a laggard country now: “In mobile phone penetration, the country ranks 76th behind Algeria, Mali and Sri Lanka, according to the World Economic Forum.”
These cited articles were all prepared by remote, using statistical research by third parties not from personal time behind the wheel by the journalists. Having just completed a 500 kilometer vacation drive through the length of Germany from Aachen by the Belgian border into northeastern Bavaria, I have fresh observations of the situation in an extensive and representative part of the country. My observations have been backed up by those of friends who travel frequently in Germany by car in this and other parts of the country.
Moreover, for a comparative sense I draw upon my more than 3 years of experience in the early 1990s as a weekly commuter from Brussels to Frankfurt or Cologne. That was when autobahns were still the pride and joy of automobile infatuated Germans. To be sure, even then one could speak nostalgically of still earlier times when no speed limits were set to spoil the fun. Speed limits were already applied to some stretches of the federal highways in the 90s, including a large portion of my commuting route, but the hidden friskiness of otherwise dour Germans still had plenty of road segments to put the pedal to the floor and enjoy domination of the road.
And for a second reality check, my observations in what follows were tested against the findings of my return trip from Bavaria to Brussels, when I chose to leave behind the wretched autobahns and experience the autoroutes of France from Strasbourg north and through Luxembourg to Belgium. Both in time and space, the comparisons with what I found In Germany a week ago lead ineluctably to Germany’s shame.
The first and overriding fact of driving on the autobahns today is that major road construction work is going on everywhere. On each arterial road, you cannot go more than 10 or 15 km without getting caught up in the road works constrictions that make travel time planning impossible and put your life at risk, something which Bloomberg & Co. has not yet considered measuring.
Summer time is by definition the season when road authorities in many European countries do the lion’s share of their annual road maintenance and improvements. However, what I saw was not comparable to the summer work in Germany of the past. Aside from separate and isolated cases of widening autobahns here and there, the big activity causing the infamous Stau or bottleneck on the German highways going back five years or more was installation of sound insulation barriers to protect residential areas adjacent to highways or similar minor improvements.
What is going on today is largely addition of a lane in each direction on what are four lane highways.
Reading the signs put up at the start of many of these work sites showing the planned termination dates of the ongoing work which extend out three and four years, and considering that the work is going on simultaneously everywhere, I conclude that the problem has been created by certain political and budgetary priorities of the German federal government which contradict best practices and expose the public works to unaccountability, frequent cost revision, quite apart from damage to the productive economy and safety risks.
In a nutshell, this type of approach to public works is process oriented rather than outcome oriented. If the latter were the case, you would see rapid scheduling of one highway project after another in sequence. Simultaneous construction all over the place means the pain is being spread and budgeting is stretched out It is a clever political tactic to calm voters and taxpayers. But the pain is being drawn out for everyone unnecessarily. The savings are illusory, since men and materiel are locked into very long-range projects.
The road widening exercise entails diversion of existing lanes into “temporary” lanes that are perhaps 20% narrower than normal and are delineated on either side by concrete or metal dividers. This creates high tension for drivers to stay within the narrow bounds. The frequent redirection this way and that makes it difficult to follow the car in front, compounding the strain on driver vision. Any momentary lack of attention and you have the real possibility of bouncing off the divider and crashing.
Then there is the problem of truck traffic. Back in the 1990s truck traffic was a nuisance because the trucks in the right lane might be traveling at 90 km/hr while the autos in the left lane could be doing 150 km/hr or more. When any of the trucks moved into the left lane to pass a peer, a hazard was created for the speed demons in their autos.
Today, the right lane of the two lane temporary highways are wholly given over to trucks, which form long caravans of twenty or more semi-trailers, often either not moving or proceeding at a snail’s pace. Effectively only one lane is open to cars, also moving under Stau warning conditions, meaning start-stop, sharp acceleration and deceleration. Here we have another contributing factor to driver weariness and heightened risk of collision.
The end result is that today the German highways are very unsafe, about which no one is talking. This issue has nothing whatever to do with preventive maintenance or the general erosion of infrastructure. It has to do with human lives and quality of life.
That it does not have to be this way was shown up by my return trip through France and Luxembourg on roads that roughly run parallel to the German autobahns on the east side of the Rhine. Yes, there were road works going on here and there, but they were strictly maintenance work – on the bridges, by the way. If one of the two lanes in each direction was shut immediately before and at the point of the works, there was no diversion from the remaining normal lane, hence no increased hazards, only the possible loss of time.
In effect, the loss of time from road works on the French side was negligible because traffic density was low. In particular, truck density on the autoroutes was very low, reminiscent of the 1990s. Thus, the question must be asked why Germany has attracted the vast numbers of trucks, many, perhaps more than half, registered in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Turkey. Does this preference for the German roads have something to do with the pricing policy on tolls for commercial traffic? Given that trucks create vastly more wear and tear on transport infrastructure than automobiles, one has to ask if the German authorities have not trapped themselves into a vicious cycle of road expansion to accommodate vast truck traffic which is destroying the infrastructure and making travel a misery for private users.
The degradation of the German road system goes well beyond transport for business and pleasure. It shows the consequences of the austerity policy which Angela Merkel and her stiff-necked and equally mulish finance minister for much of her reign, Wolfgang Schauble, imposed on the whole EU following the financial crisis of 2008.
We usually think of the EU’s austerity policy with respect to Southern Europe, where it was made a precondition for bailouts in Greece, in Portugal and elsewhere when the failing sovereign bond markets and bank collapses put the continued membership of these countries in the Euro zone in danger and urgent help was required for them to stay afloat.
Now it is obvious that in Germany, the author and enforcer of Austerity, the chickens have come home to roost.