public-private partnerships

A Rusty Bridge Too Far

Verkehrsstau auf der A 24 bei Berlin Berlin Deutschland Traffic Jam Berlin Germany 02 06 200
Traffic grinds to a halt on Leverkusen Bridge every morning and evening without fail. Source: Handelsblatt

Dilapidated infrastructure is threatening to turn Germany’s traffic problem into a disaster for drivers – and perhaps politicians too. Leverkusen Bridge in Cologne, for example, is host to an almost perpetual traffic jam, its steel so rusty that trucks are no longer allowed to use it. The chaos on this bridge across the River Rhine is so bad that it was a factor in the defeat of the North Rhine-Westphalia government of Social Democrats and Greens in recent state elections. 

Around 180,000 vehicles use this only 10-year-old part of the A1 motorway everyday, many more than it was designed for. Leverkusen Bridge is beyond repair and experts refuse to predict how long before it collapses. The cost of replacing it is pegged at around €600 million – only a fraction of the tens of billions needed across the country. Chaotic road conditions are not just confined to Cologne. The effect of too many vehicles, on too small roads, is being felt all over Germany.

Rusty bridges and crumbling roads are the result of German red tape. Road-construction planning and authorization processes take a long time. Experts reckon Leverkusen Bridge could be built anew by 2023. However, Peter Hübner, president of the Central Federation of the German Construction Industry and an expert in public projects such as this, is wary about the pace of official approvals. “If we had that bridge built by 2025, we would have done a great job,” he said.

Traditionally, public works projects have been planned in full by public authorities. They hand the projects over to privately-owned construction companies only after planning is completed. Mr. Hübner is one of a number of construction-industry experts now calling for more and earlier private-company involvement. “There would be better communication between planning and construction, and we’d be done a lot quicker,” Mr. Hübner explained.

“A street is of a lot more use to a driver if they can actually drive on it.”

Peter Hübner, president of the Central Federation of the German Construction Industry

As a result, the construction industry is making a new push for public-private partnerships. In so-called PPPs, private construction companies take over the cost of, and responsibility for, public works projects. In return, they collect lease or rental revenues from local, state or federal governments. The construction industry says this system increases both planning security and cost-effectiveness. Both private and public sectors benefit from shorter, cheaper road projects.

PPPs do not work for every public construction project, warned Kay Scheller, president of Germany’s Federal Audit Office. Financing projects could prove more expensive for a private company than for state or federal governments with top-notch credit ratings. Michael Korn, professor of construction management and building operations at Karlsruhe University, said projects often cost more. However, because private firms also profited from leasing – not just construction – revenues, they had an incentive to aim for quality. Construction was usually faster and better as a result.  

The amount of time motorists spend in traffic jams before and during refurbishment is usually not taken into account when assessing the economic viability of a PPP. However, Mr. Hübner advises that it should be, for the very reason that PPP-projects tend to be completed more quickly. Alexander Dobrindt, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s transport minister, is a supporter of PPP – although whether he can persuade his state-level colleagues remains to be seen. As Mr. Hübner said: “A street is of a lot more use to a driver if they can actually drive on it.” The same holds true for Cologne’s rusty bridge.

Maike Freund is an editor at Handelsblatt’s politics desk. To contact the author: freund@handelsblatt.com

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