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German Efficiency Stops Short at Big Building Projects

By Christian Watjen
Epoch Times Staff
Created: January 22, 2013 Last Updated: January 25, 2013
Related articles: World » Europe
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Workers clean a check-in counter at the construction site of the Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) in Berlin on Sept. 11, 2012. The airport is only one of several stalled major building projects in Germany that have exceeded cost and time estimates. (Adam Berry/Getty Images)

Workers clean a check-in counter at the construction site of the Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) in Berlin on Sept. 11, 2012. The airport is only one of several stalled major building projects in Germany that have exceeded cost and time estimates. (Adam Berry/Getty Images)

Germany’s engineering prowess in car and machinery manufacturing is admired around the world, with many wondering how to emulate the German model. When it comes to building a new airport in the capital and other large-scale construction projects on the go, however, Germans would rather not draw much attention to themselves.

The new grand Berlin Brandenburg Airport was meant to replace all three existing airports in Berlin, unifying all air traffic entering the city. It will be the country’s third largest airport. After two decades of planning and construction, the airport was scheduled to open in 2011.

Now, however, in January 2013 on a field in southeast Berlin, construction workers are the only ones entering the shiny, new terminals. The opening date for the airport has been postponed five times now, the latest postponement announced on Jan. 6, each time creating a media furor.

The initial reason given was an unsafe fire safety system that needs fixing, but more issues have since accumulated. At the last meeting of the supervisory board, it was uncertain whether the airport would even open before 2015. The original price tag also jumped from 2.4 billion euros (US$3.2 billion) to at least 4.2 billion euros (US$5.6 billion).

The airport blunder is only one of several surrounding major construction projects in Germany these days where progress has gone off course from projected timelines and costs.

 

The construction of the Elbe Philharmonic Hall, an ambitious concert hall at the Port of Hamburg has stalled. The costs have increased sevenfold and the project is six years behind. Stuttgart 21, a big rail infrastructure upgrade that includes the renewal of a central train station, has also met with major obstacles. The project in the southern state capital has met with fierce protest for years and might now be stopped altogether due to cost concerns.

The airport blunder is only one of several surrounding major construction projects in Germany these days where progress has gone off course from projected timelines and costs.

For outside observers, these blunders don’t fit the picture of industrious and efficient Germans. However, the German process of oversight on such projects and German public opinion may explain the delays, according to some economists.

Construction cranes hover over the Elbe Philharmonic Hall in Hamburg, Germany, on Oct. 20, 2011. The cost for the construction of the concert hall, which at completion will be the tallest building in the city, is expected to be at least seven times more than planned and is six years behind schedule. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Construction cranes hover over the Elbe Philharmonic Hall in Hamburg, Germany, on Oct. 20, 2011. The cost for the construction of the concert hall, which at completion will be the tallest building in the city, is expected to be at least seven times more than planned and is six years behind schedule. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

 

Oversight

One reason for these construction fiascos is the consensual structure of supervisory boards for public building projects, said Michael Adams, economics professor at the University of Hamburg. He called this an “outdated system.”

Adams explained that history taught Germans to curtail corporate power. For example, powerful steel magnates helped the Nazi Party rise to power. Consequently, Germany developed a governing system in many areas that includes as many of society’s stakeholders as possible and is run ideally on a consensus model.

Such a participatory structure has literally become “part of the German genome,” said Matthias Schäfer, economic expert at the policy research foundation Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. “[This] makes every major project more complicated than it needs to be,” he added.

The complexity of the oversight structure costs time and money and does not necessarily produce better quality, Schäfer said.

Adams suggests smaller, more professional supervisory boards with experts from all fields and countries.

“[There is a] need to modernize the supervisory boards, moving away from the stuffy class structure of the last century toward more diversity,” he said.

Transparency

Amid controversy of ongoing delays, the mayor of Berlin stepped down this week as the head of the supervisory board of the Berlin airport, which he held for 12 years. Some analysts doubt now that his successor, a social democratic governor from the state of Brandenburg, as well his board consisting of party officials and workers’ representatives, can turn the tide.

Adams sees a key problem with boards dominated by politicians: “There is no interest in the true costs and transparency.” As a result, many building projects start out without acknowledging the realistic cost estimate.

“This is a case of lack of democratic accountability,” Adams said. Regarding the Berlin airport for example, said Adams, the people in charge knew that the public would not approve of the real price tag, so they were not honest about it.

A Better Way

Adams recommends Germans learn from how construction projects are handled in other countries. Switzerland, for example, conducts popular referendums for major, expensive projects. If such referendums were held with truthful cost estimates, these projects in Germany might not have even broken ground, he said. 

Germany’s lack of ambition may also contribute to a reluctance to embark on major projects, Schäfer said. As a prosperous nation, Germany has become complacent over the decades. Germans are thus more interested in preserving the nation’s past wealth than in earning it in the future, he said.

For that reason, the population is generally skeptical about ambitious projects and something like an Olympic bid, for example, would not be widely supported.

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