As much as we like to poke fun at American public works blunders, even the Germans have their fiascos. Der Spiegel summarizes some of the worst cost overruns in German public works projects. The root causes should be familiar to Americans:
Burdened by protests, requests for costly extras or other demands, the train stations, rail lines, airports and even concert halls still haven’t been built. Costs rise — doubling or even quadrupling. The people are outraged and a city’s entire reputation can suffer, as has proven to be the case in Berlin with the failure to complete the city’s new international airport. Politicians are always happy to tout the success of completed projects, but if problems creep up in their construction, few are willing to take any responsibility.
In many instances, the false calculations are deliberate. Werner Rothengatter, a researcher at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, has studied major public works projects around the world. He says there’s a similar pattern in democratic societies, where politicians have a tendency to deceive the public about the actual costs of these projects.
Rothengatter argues that cost overruns rarely come as a surprise — regardless of whether they are from the Berlin airport or Hamburg’s new Elbphilharmonie concert hall. During his research, he found that most politicians try to calculate the price to be as low as possible in order to obtain support for the projects — deliberately veiling the potential risks.
An additional problem is that the supervisory boards overseeing these projects are often filled with politicians who have no expertise when it comes to major infrastructure projects, as evidenced in the case of the Berlin airport, where both Mayor Klaus Wowereit and Brandenburg Governor Matthias Platzeck (whose state is also a shareholder) are board members. But the administrators who are actually responsible for the day-to-day work on these projects are often hopelessly overextended.