In my last longer article I tried to give you an overview of the state of the German road network. My conclusion was that despite or because of the balanced governmental budget the roads are neglected and in dire need of funding. The situation is critical so our representatives can’t ignore the topic any longer. So what are they doing?
To keep this short-ish I will yet again go full on mafia here and only share what you need to know with you. Just trust me…
I know that the roads are not financed by the federal government alone, but you don’t need to worry about this puny detail. I’m also aware that taxes are being wasted and – depending on whom you ask – funds are falsely distributed. But when the government can ignore this, we here on Oppo shouldn’t be bothered about this inconvenience either.
In the past the issue of funding was easily resolved by lending money and dumping the problem of actually paying up on future decision-makers. Since piling up debts became as unfashionable as Jeremy Clarkson’s jokes, our politicians have to be more creative to find money elsewhere.
I didn’t give you actual numbers before because I find huge sums more distracting than DeMuro’s bare legs next to a gated shifter and sometimes even meaningless without context and comparability. To make things worse they are quite often more or less accurate estimates tainted by different political agendas so I don’t necessarily trust them. But now I feel like I can’t leave them out any longer.
Experts calculated that the German infrastructure additionally needs about 7.2 billion Euros - largely for the road network - more every year to not only patch but properly rehabilitate the existing damages. This shouldn’t be a big deal since 53 billion Euros are generated annually by taxes and tolls collected from road users. These are the automobile tax, petroleum tax and Autobahn truck toll.
Yet strangely it is for quite a few reasons. For example the taxes and toll I mentioned are favouring economic and green cars and trucks. The people respond by buying and using those vehicles and the revenues are slowly shrinking and will continue to do so.
Yet the government was able to rustle up 1.7 billion Euros per annum until 2017. This was made possible by unexpected additional receipts due to the economic pick-up.
There are rumours of an extension to the existing Autobahn truck toll circulating in Berlin. This extension would include subordinate roads as well. This might help to generate 2.3 billion Euros, but it’ll take a few years to implement the toll and set up the needed technical devices.
But the funding will still be 3.2 billion Euros short of the experts’ recommendation. Where can our leaders find the additional money?
Let’s assume you’re a German politician. What are your options despite keeping your head down and blaming others when asked a question?
You don’t want to change the order of things too drastically because the process is not only pesky but risky as well. This is underlined by the political situation over here. Germany is governed by a grand coalition, and a spirit of collaboration and solidarity within this government is nowhere to be found. You’d have to share any success with your political adversary and you are afraid that a failure would be blamed on your party alone.
No, the fundamentals of the fiscal system and governmental spending are untouchable - at least under these circumstances.
This is a bummer when according to former ADAC-president Meyer only 19 billion Euros of the aforementioned taxes and tolls are actually used for the infrastructure, and there is seemingly no way to get to the other 34 billion – wherever they are.
If you read my other article you also know that the tax revenue is already on a record high. So you can’t introduce a new tax or raise existing ones because you do want to get re-elected, don’t you?
I thought so!
Morover, Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) specificially promised her car owning voters to prevent any additional costs! Given that she didn’t swear to Benz, Hirai and Räikkönen - the Holy Trinity of motoring - I fear that her assurance isn’t binding, but that’s the status quo anyway.
Horst Seehofer might have the solution. He is the Minister-President of Bavaria and chairman of the centre-right party CSU. The CSU forms a union with its sister party CDU and is thus involved in the government.
For many years Seehofer’s answer to the lack of funding was the PKW-Maut (car toll) for foreign cars using the Autobahn. A “Vignette” costing €100 per annum is being contemplated.
This is brilliant!
We Germans have to pay to use toll roads in other countries while foreigners are allowed to use our beautiful Autobahn for free! How about a little European solidarity?
And Seehofer and his voters are pleased since he finally got his wish. The car toll will be introduced in 2016. The road network is saved now you are lead to believe.
However, it’s not that easy I’m afraid.
There are a few serious and unresolved issues. I listed some of them:
1. The anti-discrimination laws of the EU
It’s legally not possible to charge road users from other European countries while the Germans don’t have to pay the toll.
Our law-makers know this, of course, and will sell a Vignette to every German car owner too. However, they will be able to deduct the 100€ from their automobile taxes. Whether this practice is legal will be judged in Brussels when the laws are actually written.
2. The bureaucratic complexity and costs
Of course, not every car owner will buy a Vignette, but imagine the time and effort involved to process the tax deduction for over 50 million registered cars in Germany.
3. The automobile tax itself
The automobile tax is based on the engine’s displacement and pollution it creates. Owners of for example small diesel hatches and hybrids pay less than 100€ annually for their car. Will they actually get money from the government when buying a Vignette?
4. More traffic on subordinated roads
Car owners will inevitably try to avoid paying the toll and will use other roads. This might lead to more accidents, injuries and sadly even deaths because the Autobahn is statistically speaking the safest road and traffic should stay on it for that reason if possible. It’s also worth thinking about noise, jams and added wear and tear on the other roads.
5. The actual profit
Only 5% of the cars using the Autobahn are foreign. Depending on the source the net earnings of a toll are estimated to be anywhere between 265 million and 900 million Euros. Even the optimistic estimate is by far not enough to secure the additional funding for the infrastructure.
I don’t know about you, but this kind of solidarity isn’t the solution for me. And yet it’s the only small step taken so far to come up with the funding for the rehabilitation of the road network apart from the 1.7 billion I mentioned earlier.
Torsten Albig (SPD, centre-left) Minister-President of Schleswig-Holstein is aware of the state of the road network too. He’s also not convinced that the current and planned solutions are sufficient to change anything about it. And he is a masochistic lone vigilante. The Batman of politics. He’s what Germany needs him to be. Like Jack Reacher he only cares about what is right!
Around Easter he pointed out the funding gap and explained the importance of a functioning road network for Germany. He then proposed a Sonderfonds “Reparatur Deutschland” (Special fund “Repair Germany”). The money for it would be collected aside from the regular budget and would be earmarked for the infrastructure.
Although it was merely a conversation starter and far from a serious suggestion, the outrage he provoked was huge. Even politicians from his own party isolated him quickly like he was a leper and angry commentators made threats on his Facebook page. Even though politicians in the past survived bigger crisis, this was kind of a political suicide mission.
Strangely an inquiry made last year showed that 86% of the 2800 people asked were in favour of more funding for the road network. Why did Albig’s idea create such a shitstorm then?
He made a big mistake in my opinion:
Instead of keeping it vague by giving big numbers or percentages like I did here before, he said that every German would have to pay €100 into the fund - yearly.
No one grasps a number like 7.2 billion Euros. Well, I surely don’t. It doesn’t help me to know that you’re able to buy roughly 327,000 V6 Mustangs for that kind of money.
But €100 hand will be sorely missed when you have to buy new shoes for your children or more importantly the new World Cup jersey of our national football team. Making a topic emotional and personal effectively ends a serious discussion. He must have known this.
And when someone quickly coined the phrase “Schlagloch-Soli” (“Pothole-Solidarity-Contribution”) for this imaginary fund based on Albig’s comparision of the task at hand to the German reunification the debate was all but doomed.
Why is solidarity such a bad word in our Social market economy? I fear a small history lesson is in order.
After the reunification the government around Chancellor Kohl quickly learned that they needed a lot of money to create a comparable standard of living and an healthy economy in Eastern Germany. And they were as reluctant as our current government to raise taxes or introduce new ones. Instead they used the emotional atmosphere and created something different: The “Solidarity-Contribution”.
In simple terms the “Soli” (soft “S” – soo-lee) is a tax that was introduced in 1991 and it was promised that it would be disposed of after a few years when Eastern Germany was rehabilitated. And the citizens believed it.
Yet the reconstruction took more time and was far more expensive than originally planned and the Soli is still found on the pay slip today. Because the Soli isn’t earmarked to be used only in Eastern Germany, it’s very questionable whether the money is in fact solely used for the originally intended purposes and whether the government could do without it if it was disposed of as promised.
This is why the tax-payers are sensitive when someone mentions solidarity to them.
Quite a few commentators pointed out that the road conditions I called “bad” or even “very bad” in my last article are still quite good compared to other road networks all around the world. This might be true. But you can see how our politicians are relying on this assessment too and hesitate to provide the money needed. This is worsened by the fact that they obviously can’t expect any solidarity from angry voters when they need to touch upon sensitive issues.
And remember: This stalemate is happening while every day the roads are getting worse.
The picture on top of this article shows the Bridge of Solidarity and the Rhine in Duisburg. (All the pictures are sourced from Wikipedia)