German autobahn's 'backdoor' privatization row

Germany is opening the door to the privatization of one of its most-loved institutions - the autobahn - according to campaigners. Critics also fear that other public services could soon be sacrificed to investors.

Germany could approving a new constitutional change that would open several "back doors" to the privatization of the country's public services.

Cars and Transportation | 31.03.2017

The arduous debate over a constitutional change that involves the alteration of no fewer than 13 different articles in Germany's Basic Law may end this Friday, when the Bundestag votes on the amendment. This would change regulations governing the planning, building and operation of Germany's highway networks, so that so-called PPPs - or public-private partnerships - could operate highways in the future.

Myths and facts about Germany's highways

Oldest highway

Berlin's inner-city AVUS is widely considered to be Germany's oldest autobahn. It was built between 1913 and 1921. Back then, it was only 10 km (6.2 miles) long. And because it was so short, many call the AVUS an autobahn prototype.

Myths and facts about Germany's highways

'Vehicles-only road'

The first "proper" autobahn in Germany went into operation on August 6, 1932, connecting Cologne and Bonn. Literally translated, the highway was officially called "vehicles-only road." Today, the stretch is part of the A555 autobahn.

Myths and facts about Germany's highways

Debunking the Hitler myth

Historians make a point of emphasizing that the myth about Adolf Hitler commissioning the building of the first German autobahn is just that - a myth. The highway mentioned in the previous slide was a project initiated by the then lord mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer.

Myths and facts about Germany's highways

Highway 1 - the champion

A look at national statistics around the globe reveals that Australia boasts the longest highway. Its National Highway (also known as Highway 1) spans the whole continent, having a total length of well over 14,000 km (8,700 miles).

Myths and facts about Germany's highways

Amazing network

Germany for its part is known for one of the densest highway networks with a total length of roughly 13,000 km (8,077 miles). While this makes up only 6 percent of all long-distance roads in the country, almost a third of total road traffic depends on it.

Myths and facts about Germany's highways

Looming highway toll

German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt hopes the introduction of a passenger car toll for highways in Germany will wash around 500 million euros ($535 million) into state coffers annually. Opponents argue that's a myth, citing enormous infrastructure costs to collect the toll.

Even more worrying for opponents, the changes could also allow private investment in the building of schools. Critics fear that the draft alteration would loosen regulations on cooperation between the federal government and local authorities to allow the federal government to introduce PPPs into the funding process for school building.

"That's a significant promotion for PPPs," said Carl Wassmuth, of the citizens' initiative Gemeingut in BürgerInnenhand ("common property in citizens' hands" - GiB), which is campaigning against the measure.

Cars and Transportation | 24.03.2017

SPD concerns

The government can only get the required two-thirds majority in the German parliament's lower house if the vast majority of the representatives of the two coalition parties - Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) - vote in favor.

SPD parliamentary leader Oppermann has been accused of trying to trick his own MPs

That means that Tuesday's meeting of the center-left SPD's parliamentary faction will prove crucial. Back in 2016, the SPD's then economy minister, Sigmar Gabriel, initially promised rank-and-file MPs that privatization would be ruled out. According to a report in Monday's Berliner Zeitung, the SPD leadership has a cunning plan to get its more skeptical parliamentarians to toe the line, by promising that privatization would be ruled out of a new compromise.

But concerns remain that the federal government could use PPPs to create the conditions for de facto privatization in the future. After the new law was approved by Merkel's cabinet, several SPD Bundestag members voiced their concerns, which caused a delay in the vote until this week to accommodate internal party negotiations, and caused SPD parliamentary leader Thomas Oppermann to promise that the new law would not entail a privatization.

Now live
01:29 mins.
Web-videos | 31.03.2017

Tax to ride on German autobahns

That was reiterated by the CDU. "We are not privatizing anything," the party's budget policy spokesman Eckhardt Rehberg told DW. "The material property of the autobahn remains with the federal government. Also the infrastructure company that we are founding does not allow any private investment."

Rehberg also denied that school building would end up being privatized. "No, that's wrong," he said. "We're creating a fund of 3.5 billion euros ($3.9 billion) for school renovations. That has nothing to do with PPPs."

Extra help for small states

Rehberg's explanation for the constitutional alteration sounds reasonable. "Smaller states are not able to administer larger projects. They cannot organize building rights, renovation, and maintenance within a reasonable amount of time," he said. "We have massively increased investment infrastructure, and we want to invest even more, and shorten planning times."

Rehberg insisted that the autobahns could not be privatized

But Wassmuth didn't think much of this. "PPPs are a type of privatization, in which private investors provide the money in advance, but then demand returns," he said. "Everything has to be paid back, including interest, from the public coffers."

Germany's Federal Audit Office once concluded that roadbuilding projects involving PPPs end up costing the state an average of 20 percent more, because of the profits that private companies require.

Objections among civil society organizations and the public have grown. And an online petition, organized by GiB, has collected over 100,000 signatures, with protests and press conferences planned in Berlin throughout the week.

Both of Germany's parliamentary opposition parties, the Greens and the Left party, have vocally protested the plans. Two of its prominent members took to the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper on Monday to decry all the loopholes in the law that would allow privatization in the future - not least because, if the CDU wins September's election and is elected with its preferred Free Democratic Party (FDP) coalition partner, it will be in a position to vote through necessary measures in the future.

Beware of Europe's sometimes quirky traffic laws

Splashing people, hogging the middle lane? It'll cost you.

A British motorist has been fined about £1,000 (1,400 euros; $1,600) for hogging the middle lane of a motorway. He also got hit with five penalty points. Police can also hand out on-the-spot fines of £100 for careless or inconsiderate driving - such as splashing pedestrians. Researchers say hogging the middle lane can cause traffic jams. And let's face it, splashing people is just rude.

Beware of Europe's sometimes quirky traffic laws

Clean up your act

Don't mind if your car looks messy? Well, police in Romania sure do. It's illegal to drive an "excessively dirty car." You can be punished for not cleaning your license plate, headlights and taillights. It probably wouldn't hurt to clean the windows too.

Beware of Europe's sometimes quirky traffic laws

Race of the slowest?

We've all been there - stuck watching one truck slowly overtaking another. Switzerland has decided to put an end to snail-paced races with a law requiring vehicles in the far-left lane of a three-lane highway be able to go at least 100 km/h (62 mph). The new regulations are due to come into effect in 2016.

Beware of Europe's sometimes quirky traffic laws

Winter is coming…

…so brace yourself with winter tires when traveling to Iceland between November and April. Iceland is not the only country that requires snow tires in winter - Austria, Estonia and Finland, among others, as insisting on winter weather gear. While it's not mandatory to carry snow chains in most EU countries, it's still a good idea to have them handy.

Beware of Europe's sometimes quirky traffic laws

That's not a carwash

Streets are regularly swept in Finland, so Avis warns car renters to keep up with the cleaning schedule. The city of Helsinki posts street signs, information on the Internet and sends text messages all to let car owners know when to move their vehicles. And those who fail to do so...well, city officials will remove it for them…for a charge.

Beware of Europe's sometimes quirky traffic laws

Lit up - day and night

"Turn on the lights when it's dark" is one of the first lessons in drivers' ed, but Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Poland are the among the countries where it's mandatory when the sun is shining too. And since 2011, all new passenger cars and small vans in the EU have to be equipped with daytime running lights that automatically turn on when starting the engine.

Beware of Europe's sometimes quirky traffic laws

One's not enough

Remember to bring a spare pair of glasses if you plan on driving in Spain! You'll be required to have an extra pair if it's noted on your driver's license that you need glasses in order to drive. Now just remember to put them in the glove compartment!

Beware of Europe's sometimes quirky traffic laws

What's the time?

Germany's famous Autobahn has often been described as a road with no speed limits. While some sections of it don't have a general speed limit, there are plenty of rules on how fast you're allowed to drive in Germany. You might even have to keep track of time, as certain rules only apply at certain times during the day. That also goes for speed limits elsewhere too, such as in front of schools.