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2015-01-05 07:10


AUTOBAHN RUNNING OUT OF SPEED: Millions of Germans - not to mention thousands more passing through the country - depend on the autobahn every day. Now it's crumbling... Image: Shutterstock

BERLIN, Germany – This country’s legendary autobahn network, once a symbol of the nation's public investment in infrastructure, has fallen into a bad state of disrepair.

How much money will it take to return the country to its position as a world leader in infrastructure? The grim state of the 12 800km of autobahn is more of a sign of the nation's crumbling infrastructure and the threat it poses to growth in Europe's biggest economy.

Though they date back to the 1930’s and the administration of Adolf Hitler the multi-lane highways only truly emerged during the nation's rapid post-Second World War development. The system was core to flaunting Germany's automotive engineering prowess in the form of luxury, high-performance, vehicles from BMW, Porsche, Audi and Mercedes-Benz

830 000km OF TAILBACKS

But the days of hurtling effortlessly without a speed limit along well-kept freeways seem to be long gone. Drivers these days find freeway travel more of a stop-start driving experience characterised by degraded road surfaces, decrepit bridges and long delays caused by huge traffic jams.

Germany's main automobile association, Adac, estimates that in 2013 such tailbacks across the country totalled 830 000km - more than the distance from the Earth to the moon and almost back again. For many Germans, driving without a speed limit has been a long cherished freedom in what can seem like a heavily regulated society. Indeed, Freie Fahrt fuer Buerger (unrestricted driving for unrestricted citizens) has been the catchphrase for Germany's car culture and the nation's powerful auto lobby since the 1970’s.


However, with the number of traffic jams hitting 415 000 in 2013, concerns about safety, noise in built-up areas and ongoing repairs mean that speed restrictions now apply to about 40% of the freeways.

Marcel Fratzscher, who heads up the Berlin-based German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), said: "Weak investment: that is our Achilles’ heel.” A DIW study reports that about 20% of the network and 40% of bridges are in a critical state, partly because of years of fiscal belt-tightening. Cleaning up Germany's public finances has been the nation’s chancellor Angela Merkel’s key goal since she took the job in 2005.

Berlin, under pressure from Germany's eurozone partners and international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund to do more to spur growth in the embattled currency bloc economy, has pledged to spend €10-billion through 2016 to 2018 on upgrading the country's infrastructure.

Specific projects have not so far been identified.

This is on top of the €5-billion Merkel promised during 2014’s election for transport infrastructure in the next three years and these sums are in addition to the €10-billion the government spends each year on the maintenance of transport4 networks.


Merkel's cabinet also gave the go-ahead in December to impose an annual toll on foreign-registered vehicles from 2016 which is expected to generate about €500-million a year to help pay for autobahn repairs.

The Cologne Institute for Economics Research has estimated that Germany needs a minimum of €120-billion over 10 years to return the nation's infrastructure, including the autobahns and bridges, to a standard which once made it the pride of Europe's biggest economy.

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