German motorway bridges crumble – DW – 06/23/2024

German motorway bridges crumble – DW – 06/23/2024
German motorway bridges crumble – DW – 06/23/2024

At the end of May 2024, the Moseltal Bridge offered an unusual spectacle. Twenty-four red trucks were parked together right in the middle of the bridge. The 960-ton load was being used to see how much the work, inaugurated more than 50 years ago, and therefore very worn by the passage of time, could still support. In early 2023, cracks were discovered throughout the bridge’s nearly 1 kilometer-long steel structure. Test results are still being evaluated.

The Moseltal Bridge is not an isolated case. In Germany, around 5,000 of the 40,000 bridges on the country’s motorways are in such poor condition that they must be urgently repaired.

More than half of them were built before 1985. Because they were designed for less traffic and lighter vehicles, they are now overloaded and many show signs of deterioration. Furthermore, in recent years very little has been done to maintain them.

It is not possible to renew them all at the same time. German Transport Minister Volker Wissing called the challenge a “generational task” and aims to restore about 400 bridges a year. “We are setting new priorities to approach bridge modernization strategically,” he said after the first “bridge summit” in Berlin in 2022.

Strategies for bridge renewal

This will require streamlining planning, procedures and coordination to accelerate renovations and new construction. But an important question in setting priorities is determining how much longer a dilapidated bridge can continue to be used. Establishing speed limits and preventing the passage of heavy vehicles could extend the life of a bridge, but even these measures cannot completely rule out a sudden collapse.

At the end of 2021, the Rahmede Bridge in North Rhine-Westphalia was so damaged that it had to be closed due to the danger of collapse. It was finally demolished in 2023 and a new construction is now being worked on. The first section will be ready, hopefully, in 2026.

This is a disaster for the region. Before the closure, about 48,000 cars and almost 16,000 trucks crossed the bridge daily. Due to the detour imposed in the area, thousands of vehicles pass through the small town of Lüdenscheid.

Vehicular traffic jams in Lüdenscheid.Image: Rüdiger Wölk/IMAGO

There, neighbors complain of kilometer-long traffic jams, extreme noise and pollution. The lack of a bridge also means that the routes used as alternatives in the region are congested, which has had the consequence that six other bridges can no longer support the load and have had to be closed or partially used to avoid their collapse. .

Economic impact of damaged infrastructure

The regional economy has felt the impact. Businesses are harder to reach, commutes are longer, and companies are suffering the effects, including retailers and restaurants along busy downtown routes, where excess traffic has driven away customers.

In 2022, the German Economic Institute (IW) presented an “economic damage assessment”, according to which companies around Lüdenscheid will see their workforce reduced by 2 percent and the local economy will contract by 300 million euros per year.

“The negative effects of closing the bridge will amount to at least 1.8 billion euros over the next five years,” says the study, which maintains that millions of euros could be saved if the bridge were completed faster. However, accelerating construction will not It’s so simple. Large infrastructure projects often require years of planning. And in Germany there are regulations that require precise and lengthy inspections.

The German government is trying to speed things up, introducing a law in late 2023 that will eliminate the need for permits and environmental impact assessments for bridges being expanded. This should cut the total paperwork and construction time in half.

Lacks money

But there is also a lack of money. Starting in 2025, the German government will have to make massive cuts to comply with the debt brake enshrined in the Constitution. At the same time, inflation has driven up the price of construction materials and labor costs have also increased.

This year, 4.6 billion euros have been allocated to the renovation of highways and bridges. According to current plans, this figure will increase to 5 billion euros per year from 2025. However, the state-owned company Autobahn GmbH has already announced that it will need an additional 5.5 billion euros for the period 2025-2028. The problem is that in budget discussions it has been pointed out that the Ministry of Transportation is one of the areas where savings can be made.

Wissing believes he has a solution: the German Liberal Party (FDP) wants to turn to private help. Will German drivers have to pay to cross a bridge in the future? For now there is nothing concrete, but the idea is on the table.


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