End of road for Germany’s autobahn network?

2015-01-04 12:47

Once a symbol of the nation’s public investment in infrastructure, Germany’s legendary autobahn network has fallen into a bad state of disrepair. How much money will it take to return the country to its position as a world leader in infrastructure?

Germany’s vast freeway network was once a symbol of the nation’s much-praised transport system. But now, the grim state of the 12 800 kilometres of autobahns is more of a sign of the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and the threat it poses to growth in Europe’s biggest economy.

Dating back to the 1930s and the rule of Adolf Hitler, Germany’s legendary autobahns truly emerged during the nation’s rapid post-World War II development. The system was vital to flaunting Germany’s engineering prowess, in the form of luxury, high-performance vehicles from BMW, Porsche, Audi and Mercedes-Benz.

But the days of hurtling effortlessly without speed limits along well-kept Autobahns seem to be long gone. Motorists these days find freeway travel more of a stop-start driving experience characterised by degraded road surfaces, decrepit bridges and long delays caused by massive traffic jams.

Germany’s main automobile association, ADAC, estimates that in 2013 such tailbacks across the country totalled 830 000 kilometres – more than the distance from the Earth to the moon and almost back again.

For many Germans, driving without a speed limits has been a long cherished freedom in what can seem like a heavily regulated society.

Indeed, Freie Fahrt fuer Buerger (Unrestricted driving for unrestricted citizens) has been the catchphrase for Germany’s car culture and the nation’s powerful auto lobby since the 1970s.

But with the number of traffic jams hitting 415 000 in 2013, concerns about safety, noise around built-up areas and ongoing repairs meaning that speed restrictions now apply to about 40% of the freeways.

“Weak investment: This is our Achilles heel,” said Marcel Fratzscher, who heads up the Berlin-based German Institute for Economic Research (DIW).

About one-fifth of the Autobahn network and 40% of bridges are in a critical state, partly a consequence of years of fiscal belt-tightening, according to a DIW study.

Cleaning up Germany’s public finances has been Chancellor Angela Merkel key goal since she came to power in 2005.

But, under pressure from Germany’s eurozone partners and international organisations such as the International Monetary Fund to do more to spur growth in the embattled currency bloc economy, Berlin has pledged to spend €10 billion between 2016 and 2018 on upgrading the country’s infrastructure. However, the projects have so far not been identified.

This is on top of the €5 billion that Merkel promised during last year’s election for transport infrastructure in the next three years.

And these sums are in addition to the €10 billion the government spends each year in trying to maintain standards along its transportation networks.

Merkel’s cabinet also gave the go-ahead in December to impose an annual toll on foreign-registered drivers from 2016 - which is expected to generate about €500 million a year to help raise money for the Autobahn repair bill.

It’s not just the Autobahns that need some help. Germany’s railway company, Deutsche Bahn, has also sought to address underinvestment in rail transport with a five-year €28-billion infrastructure investment programme aimed at renovating 875 bridges and renewing about 17 000 kilometres of track.

But the Cologne Institute for Economics Research has estimated earlier this year that Germany needs, at a minimum, to spend €120 billion in 10 years to return the nation’s infrastructure, including the Autobahns and bridges, to a standard which once made it the pride of Europe’s biggest economy.

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