Crumbling German Autobahns Leave Drivers Stuck in Traffic Jams

  • Germany underspending on infrastructure threatens growth
  • Economists say shoddy roads make Germany less attractive

Autobahn.

Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

On a typical weekday, hundreds of heavy trucks arrive at the Chempark Leverkusen, a sprawling complex of refineries flanking the Rhine River in western Germany. For the past two years, the trucks have been forced to make long detours to avoid a crumbling Autobahn bridge that dates to when the Beatles were singing Twist and Shout in Hamburg.

Designed in the early 1960s to carry 40,000 cars a day, the span over the Rhine today sees three times that number -- and it’s barely holding up. After hundreds of cracks were discovered, authorities closed the bridge to trucks and reduced the speed limit to 60 kilometers per hour (37 mph).

“It’s stressful for our workers and damaging for all the companies involved,” said Ernst Grigat, who oversees Chempark and two similar sites nearby for a property management company called Currenta. “And it’s also a growth barrier for our economy, which needs good infrastructure.”

German infrastructure still looks pretty solid compared to the U.S., and roads in the eastern part of the country are in relatively good condition since being updated after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But highways and bridges in the west often date to the 60s and 70s, and their shoddy state is shaking the country that invented the autobahn, the highway system that in many places has no speed limit.

The concerns have been compounded by high-profile projects troubled by delays and cost overruns: Stuttgart’s underground train station is at least two years behind schedule, and a new Berlin airport originally slated to start welcoming passengers in 2011 remains years from completion. (Some say it will never open.)

The number of traffic jams in Germany is increasing

Rankings Drop

Germany has dropped to No. 7 in the World Economic Forum’s ranking of 140 nations on infrastructure, from third in 2013. About 15 percent of its 70,000 local bridges are deemed to be in “critical” condition and half are substandard, according to the German Institute of Urban Affairs, a publicly funded researcher in Berlin. With road conditions deteriorating, the number of traffic jams jumped 20 percent last year, to 568,000, according to ADAC, the national auto club. The government is underfunding the system by at least 10 billion euros ($11.3 billion) annually, said Marcel Fratzscher, president of the DIW Institute for Economic Research in Berlin.

“We can see the economic damage” from shoddy roads and bridges, Fratzscher said. “Companies say bad transport infrastructure makes Germany a less attractive place to invest.”

Investment Plans

Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt said this month that he aims to invest 264.5 billion euros in roads, railways and waterways through 2030, with most of the money used just to maintain the current infrastructure. “We know that we have serious catching up to do,” Dobrindt said in February at an infrastructure conference in Berlin.

Finding the money to pay for those improvements hasn’t proven easy. Eager to balance the budget, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has kept a lid on infrastructure spending. While trucks must pay to use the autobahns, cars travel the highways for free. Tolls to cover maintenance -- like in Austria, France, and Switzerland -- are so unpopular that the idea has become something of a third rail in German politics. And the country faces billions of euros in unanticipated spending to cope with the million refugees that arrived last year. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble will on Wednesday announce the outlines for next year’s budget.

Heavy Trucks

Germany may need to rethink how it builds its highways, according to Wulf-Holger Arndt, a researcher at the Institute of Urban Affairs. The roads have suffered because they weren’t designed to handle the weight of today’s big commercial vehicles, and the government should craft policies that encourage companies to move more of those loads by train, Arndt said. “A 24-ton truck does as much damage to a road as 10,000 cars,” he said.

For now, there’s no fixing structures like the troubled A1 bridge near Cologne. The span is in such dire shape that authorities have to build a new one, which may not be completed for a decade. Construction delays will likely slow traffic for years in the Cologne region, home to 3.5 million people, said Ulrich Soénius, deputy head of the local chamber of commerce.

“Traffic will only increase, so we need more investment to keep our economy growing,” Soénius said. “The problem will be with us for a long time.”

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