(The sign reads “road damages” and someone attached “for roughly 30 years now” underneath it. Picture by www.bild.de)
Bitching and moaning about the government is a preferred pastime all over the world. Whether I read a text on Jalopnik or in a German newspaper, the taxes we hard working citizens have to hand over to our leaders always seem to be wasted and/or missing everywhere because of negligent incompetence or even barely concealed viciousness.
For us Jalops the condition of the road network is a common topic. From reading articles and your comments I get the impression that the roads in the US suffer a lot from potholes, rotting bridges and other signs of decay while the government is paralysed by shutdowns and unable to provide more funding.
So what’s going on in Deutschland?
Some of you might know that Germany is in a remarkable situation. While a lot of countries still struggle to recover from the recession and especially states in Southern Europe are desperately trying to control their national deficits with sometimes drastic measures, our finance minister Schäuble was able to present the first balanced budget since the late 60s this year because the German economy is (slowly) growing and unemployment is low thus raising the tax revenue to a record high.
I’m not going into the witchcraft and monetary trickery involved to calculate the budget and whether the estimated numbers are actually real or not. Let’s assume here that the balanced budget is a fact.
So life is peachy and driving a smooth joy over here, you might think.
Paradoxically nobody is building statues of our beloved leaders though. In fact, the balanced budget isn’t big news, and the government around Angela Merkel – although fairly popular for reasons beyond me – wasn’t able to really profit from this achievement yet. The problems Germany and the European Union are facing these days - and in the near future for that matter - are too severe to unconcernedly celebrate this historic success. The Germans also didn’t forget that in the last five years the government had to loan an unprecedented amount of money to stimulate the economy, save the banks and the Euro all at once. So everybody is anxious that the balance might be a short-lived moment, and the promise of a positive national budget within the next two years is just as hollow as almost every election campaign drivel we heard before.
And then there’s something else. What are “we” supposed to celebrate exactly?
Despite the record high tax revenue – of course being a nuisance by itself for us hard working citizens - the balanced budget wasn’t possible without reducing expenses.
“A penny saved is a penny earned”, is a phrase we all know too well. But a government isn’t about earning money.
Don’t get me wrong now. I’m being deliberately simplistic in my analysis. We can all see what happened in Greece when the national debt reached a critical level. However, this is not the place to debate it. Let’s just say for now that there’s a limit to making debts somewhere, and even though Germany luckily didn’t reach it in the past, it’s probably for the best not to find out where exactly it is.
So the national budget is a complicated affair and spending was cut more or less everywhere. But this being Oppo I will - like a true lobbyist – ignore those facts completely and just bang the drum for the road network in this article.
I will also overlook that large parts of the road network are financed by the federal states and smaller municipalities too. The 16 federal states and countless municipalities have varying budgets themselves and some of them are in way bigger financial turmoil than the national government. But to make things easier here and to completely lose my credibility, I will unrealistically assume that those subdivisions have roughly comparable budgets to upkeep their share of the roads and fail miserably at doing so.
In every country the transport infrastructure is the fundament on which the society and economy is based. Germany is - or was - in the comfortable position of having a well developed and dense road network that was largely build about 40 years ago. In Eastern Germany parts of the infrastructure were (re-)build after the reunification and are therefore more modern. This fairly efficient network in the densely populated heart of one of the most important economic regions in the world is partially making up for some of Germany’s shortcomings like for example the lack of natural resources.
To see what our “rolling economy” actually looks like watch the video of fellow Opponaut Reborn Pyrrhic.
I’d also compare the infrastructure to a savings bank book. You invest money to bear interest and sometimes you’re able to draw out money when you’re really in need. Our different governments drew out money for quite a long time now.
In this case the phrase mentioned above could be changed to: “A penny saved is a penny lost!”
This was noticed early and pointed out by the media in the past, but because the road network is huge and was in good shape about two decades ago a bit of patchery here, lowering the speed limit there and some bypassing worked miracles. And although the number of road works causing jams were annoying for sure, they were negligible in the bigger picture. The ever increasing traffic was still moving after all and you can always fix the roads properly later, right?
The result of that thinking is that the government is saving/earning money while the roads are deeply in debt by now.
I read a bunch of articles on varied websites about the topic. When it comes to a statistical analysis of the state of the road network it’s important to stress that the questions and persons asked in the articles were differing. And as it’s always true with media coverage: The stronger the language and pessimism of an article the better. So be aware that there’s sensationalism and a bit of “Top Gear science” going on. I also tried to find numbers that are up-to-date yet sometimes they refer to different years from 2011 to 2013. Since the condition of the roads didn’t change significantly in those years I will throw them together as I please.
So take my summary with a pinch of salt. It’s about context and the grand scheme of things, and the consensus I found after reading various articles is the same.
The German road network is kaputt!
“Wait a minute”, I feel you are thinking at the moment. “When I was travelling though Germany the roads were quite good. Why do you create this artificial drama?”
Due to the varying ways they are financed I will distinguish three types of roads in my analysis. The smaller municipality roads, the state roads (Landstraßen) financed by the 16 states and the federal roads (Bundesstraßen and Autobahnen) maintained and build by the national government.
Your observation about the quite good roads is spot on. While visiting Germany you were mostly using the federal roads, I suspect. Because of the traffic volume they have to handle and the international responsibility they have to fulfil in Central Europe, they enjoy a high priority when the budget is distributed. And like I mentioned beforehand the monetary situation of the national government is quite healthy.
Still, about 20% of the Autobahn – or 2,560km – are in a “bad” or even “very bad” condition.
The Bundesstraßen are worse. About 35% of them are in “bad” or “very bad” shape. We are talking about 13,650km here.
And the reason why you didn’t notice this is simple. Road damages are not only indicated by road works, patches or potholes. Those are sometimes rather superficial scratches. But like the dwarves in Lord of the Rings our government dug too deep and woke up the demons of structural damage and material fatigue.
If you are driving through Germany and you aren’t familiar with a place you don’t notice where speed limits were lowered in the past or trucks aren’t allowed to drive anymore. So while those roads may look okay, they sometimes are in dire need of a complete rebuild. The situation of the federal roads is critical and it only gets downhill from here.
Varying from 22% in Lower Saxony – in Bremen it’s 21%, but it’s a very small city state - to 64% in Saxony-Anhalt, about 50% of the 86,600km of state roads are also in „bad” or worse condition.
There is a lack of data concerning the 541,000km of smaller municipality roads since it seems to be too difficult to gather conclusive information about them. But if you were to look through some local papers you’ll be able to find roads in catastrophic states quite easily.
So somehow I feel there is no reason for optimism when it comes to the status of those smaller roads.
The bridges are the weakest link of the infrastructure, and you can’t see what they look like inside and underneath when you are passing over them. Sometimes lanes are closed for trucks helping you to assess a bridge’s actual condition.
They were mostly constructed about 40 years ago with a lot less traffic in mind and are now overstrained like a press car in the hands of Chris Harris.
35% of the 67,000 bridges in Germany are in need of rehabilitation and 15% of them have to be replaced in the near future since they are beyond repair long before their predicted lifespan ended.
46% of the Autobahn bridges are in a bad condition too which shows you the effects of the increasing freight traffic on them.
Those statistics are dramatic. I won’t bore you by writing down estimated numbers with a lot of zeros behind them here because I wrote another article for that. But you might be able to understand now that there is a lot of money needed to fix those issues in the near future. So the next time when the world envies our finance minister and the German success in general just remember that it’s all relative.