News Column

Missed Deadlines and Big Budgets: Germany's Megaprojects Ridiculed

Jan. 9, 2013

Klaus Blume, dpa

Germany prides itself on its efficiency, punctuality and engineering prowess - making the debacle around Berlin's oft-delayed new airport all the more embarassing.

But while the fourth postponement of the airport launch has triggered heated protests, a look at other German megaprojects shows that missed openings and blown budgets are far from unusual.

The list of expensive white elephants is long: Hamburg's new symphony hall, Stuttgart's central railway station, an amusement park next to a Formula One track, Berlin's state opera redevelopment.

Micro-bloggers have had fun with the sad comedy of errors around the Berlin international airport, whose opening was delayed this week, for a fourth time and indefinitely, over fire safety problems.

Millions of passengers were by now meant to be flocking through its gleaming terminals, which instead lie deserted while costs are expected to at least double from the original 2.4 billion euros (3.1 billion dollars).

"No-one has the intention of building an airport," is one online joke - a play on the words East German communist party chief Walter Ulbricht used when he denied plans to build the Berlin Wall.

One online comment suggested turning the runways into "Germany's coolest go-kart track" and a Tweet said the airport code BER should really stand for "Bald eine Ruine" - "soon to be a ruin."

Top-selling tabloid daily Bild has challenged Berlin's embattled centre-left mayor Klaus Wowereit to step down, charging that "the whole world is laughing about our capital city."

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called the airport "the most problem-plagued project of the post-war era" and Ulm's Suedwest Presse charged that it "damages the image of Germany."

Angela Merkel has also joined the debate, with her spokesman saying the German chancellor was "naturally worried about the reports, which have been emerging at regular intervals from the site."

Steffen Seibert went on to say that for the moment it was not possible to say what additional work or extra costs were needed to finally finish the airport.

But a look at other German building disasters shows that Berlin's airport is not the only grand project in trouble.

The northern river port of Hamburg has struggled for years to build a new philharmonic concert hall as the landmark of its massive HafenCity harbour-front redevelopment.

Originally meant to open on the Elbe River in 2010 at a cost of 77 million euros, the project was hobbled by years of bickering between the city-state and construction company Hochtief.

The prestige object, the Elbphilharmonie, will now cost an estimated 575 million euros - a whopping seven-fold cost overrun - and won't open its doors to classical music lovers until 2016.

In the southwestern high-tech hub of Stuttgart, ambitious plans to move the central railway station below ground were plagued by planning delays and citizen protests.

First budgeted at 2.5 billion euros back in 1995, the Stuttgart 21 project will now cost 5.6 billion euros, says operator Deutsche Bahn, which warns of possible additional overruns of 1.2 billion euros. The first trains are now meant to run there in 2020 or 2021.

Costs have also exploded for an amusement park adjacent to the Formula One track the Nurburgring. And another Berlin project, renovating the state opera which opened in 1743, has also gobbled up far more money and time than originally planned.

Architects and media commentators have debated the problem, with daily the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung asking whether politicians seeking to push through their vanity projects are forced to talk down costs to get their pet building off the ground in the first place.

Renowned urban planner Albert Speer - the son of the Nazi architect of the same name - demanded more straight talk from policy-makers and reforms of outdated planning and building rules.

"In a democracy, mega-projects can only be finished on time if there is a very clear deadline," he told Cicero magazine, pointing to successful and on-time projects such as the 2000 Hanover World Fair.

News weekly Spiegel in a tongue-in-cheek commentary said bold projects take time, pointing out that construction on Cologne's famed cathedral started in 1248 and only ended in 1880.

"Those who hesitate before breaking ground have already lost the battle," it advised German visionaries. "Creating a grand building means boldly casting aside the constraints of money and time."

Source: Copyright 2013 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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