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Germany — yes, Germany — has an infrastructure problem

A welder repairs the A1 bridge between Cologne and Leverkusen in Germany.
Source: Straßen.NRW
A welder repairs the A1 bridge between Cologne and Leverkusen in Germany.

FRANKFURT — It was a scene that had become all too common on the autobahn. Hundreds of heavy trucks slowed to a crawl on diverted routes into Germany's fourth-largest city. The usual bridge crossing over the Rhine from Leverkusen into Cologne could no longer support their weight.

"When you see steel breaking, the steel ripping apart, then you get an idea of what it means to have an old bridge in desperate need of repair," said Ernst Grigat, head of chemical facility operator Chempark, which runs three industrial complexes in Germany including one in Leverkusen.

Crumbling bridges and traffic jams are staining Germany's global reputation for efficiency. The infrastructure in Europe's largest economy — as in the United States — has been slowly deteriorating from a lack of investment over the past few decades. Now the budget-conscious German government is stepping up efforts to rebuild the country's roads, bridges, railways and waterways before it's too late.

"If the government starts spending a lot on infrastructure, you never know if it's going to the right place." -Raymond Van Der Putten, economist, BNP Paribas

In 2006, Germany ranked third in the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report for the overall quality of its transport infrastructure. This year, it has slipped to 11th place, while the United States ranked 13th.

Last month, Germany's Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure adopted a plan to spend 269 billion euros (roughly $300 billion) on construction and modernization of the country's infrastructure over the next 15 years. The plan prioritizes repairing existing systems, with 70 percent of funds allocated toward maintenance.

"It is the strongest program for infrastructure that Germany has ever seen," said Michael Groschek, minister of Building, Housing, Urban Development and Transport of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Cracks in the system

The deteriorating state of bridges, roads and railways has forced infrastructure investment onto the political agendas in Germany, and the U.S. presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both have promised to invest hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild U.S. highways, bridges and ports.

"There are certain parallels with the U.S., where the roads, bridges, ports are in an ever-worse state and deteriorating," said Marcel Fratzscher, president of DIW, a research institute in Berlin.

But efforts to rebuild infrastructure in both countries show cracks between national, state and local levels of government. For instance, federal funding in the U.S. often goes to the national highway system, instead of to local roads in more desperate need of repair, according to Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"Interstate roads are in great shape, but it's actually the local roads that are having more problems," Tomer said.

Germany similarly lacks coordination between federal and local governments when it comes to funding projects. A study by development bank KfW found German municipalities needed nearly $40 billion in road and transport infrastructure last year. Only 1 in 20 municipalities was able to ensure comprehensive maintenance of local transport infrastructure, according to the report.

In a June staff report, the International Monetary Fund urged Germany to remove administrative and regulatory constraints in municipalities in order to improve infrastructure. The report said the federal government's new infrastructure plan is encouraging, but it advised governments to remain vigilant when addressing the spending reforms.

Long road ahead

The A1 bridge between Cologne and Leverkusen in Germany no longer supports trucks weighing more than 3.5 tons.
Source: Straßen.NRW
The A1 bridge between Cologne and Leverkusen in Germany no longer supports trucks weighing more than 3.5 tons.

The work ahead is daunting. Groschek said one-fifth of the road networks in his region need to be repaired. The German Institute of Urban Affairs estimated that 15 percent of Germany's municipal road bridges need to be completely rebuilt. German railway company Deutsche Bahn said new measures to increase train punctuality will take several years. Last year, 1 in 4 long-distance trains on the network did not run on time, in part because of construction efforts.

Berlin's Brandenburg Airport serves as a high-profile example of the country's bungled attempts to improve public infrastructure. The airport remains closed after more than 10 years under construction. Former Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit described the airport as his "biggest failure" after 13 years in office.

The repercussions of Germany's crumbling infrastructure — and reconstruction efforts — extend beyond travel delays and traffic jams. DIW's Fratzscher said the current conditions are causing lasting economic damage.

"Public investment for investment in infrastructure is an important precondition for the creation of jobs, productivity and economic dynamism," he said.

If you build it, will they come?

The consensus on building roads and bridges to stimulate growth is not unanimous. Some economists argue more government stimulus, including infrastructure spending, will only dig countries into debt.

BNP Paribas economist Raymond Van Der Putten said this argument holds weight with Germans, who value their country's tight finances and balanced budget. Van Der Putten pointed to Japan's "bridges to nowhere," as one reason behind German skepticism about increased public spending on infrastructure.

"If the government starts spending a lot on infrastructure, you never know if it's going to the right place," he said.

Brookings' Tomer said rebuilding efforts should focus on areas that will generate the highest returns on investment. He said investments can sometimes be heavily tilted toward rural infrastructure, when urban areas often need more work.

"The challenge is how do we get really targeted about where the choke points are in those systems and where the biggest economic costs are being generated," he said.

Despite the costs, Chempark's Grigat said Germany had no choice but to rebuild in places like the A1 bridge at Leverkusen. The first part of the new bridge is expected to be complete in 2020. He added that the consequences of modernizing infrastructure, like additional traffic jams, are essential for long-term mobility and economic growth.

"On the long term we'll be fine, but we need to build through some state of interruption," he said.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct name of the German Institute of Urban Affairs.