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A Rocky Road for Germany's Autobahn

The EU's eastern expansion has made Germany's freeway system essential for cross-European freight transport. More freeways are needed, but their construction remains controversial and expensive.

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Over 12 years in the making, and the A17 autobahn isn't finished yet

The completion of the A17 autobahn, the freeway which will eventually run from the city of Dresden to the Czech border, will mean very different things depending on who you talk to.

To its proponents, it will close a gaping hole in Europe's freeway system and encourage economic growth by keeping pace with the continent's fast-growing international road transport needs. To its detractors, it will dirty the air in Dresden, threaten sensitive natural habitats and increase traffic in the region. In short, it will represent a wrong approach to transport planning.

All can agree on one thing though, it will have been an expensive and protracted project -- in the works since 1991, in the end the 44.6 kilometer (27.7 mile) stretch to the Czech Republic, estimated to be completed in 2006 and to carry up to 72,000 vehicles per day, will have cost at least €650 million ($790 million) to build.

The rocky history of this costly road highlights a common problem regarding transport in Germany today: How to balance the growing needs of highway transportation and economic growth with protection for the environment and the people who live near autobahn routes.

Armin Reck, press spokesman for the Saxony Highway Department, has been involved with the A17 since its early days. He was brought in to sell the idea to the public, since the project was almost shelved due to vocal opposition.

Autobahndreieck Dresden

Opponents say the stretch runs through sensitive habitats

Groups ranging from traditional environmental activists to farmers to the clergy -- "Pastors against the A17" -- hit the streets in protest, camped out in trees slated for felling, and went to court to stop the freeway.

"It was astounding what kind of groups came out against this freeway," Reck told DW-WORLD as he drove along the nine-kilometer stretch of almost-completed tunnels and bridges that has turned into once of the most expensive sections of an already costly project.

EU's transport backbone

Despite the sky-high sums involved, economists and business leaders agree that there is a critical need to improve and expand Germany's aging network of freeways. Given Germany's new central position within the EU, after the May 1 expansion added ten new members mostly in eastern Europe, the freeway system is now the backbone of international road shipping in Europe. Whether goods are going from Poland to Spain or Sweden to Greece, if they are going by road, it is likely they will pass through Germany.

LKW and der deutsch-belgischen Grenze

Truck traffic is estimated to increase dramatically.

As trade increases between new and old members of the EU, traffic is likely to increase. Conservative estimates say by 2010, the number of trucks travelling on German freeways will double; other forecasts say the number will quadruple. If Germany's already overburdened system is not beefed up, many fear, goods could be delayed crossing the continent and economic development could suffer.

"Traffic and economic growth are related closely to one another," Ralf Stock, head of the department of traffic engineering, told DW-WORLD. "It's a fact that during the past 30 years, the development of the gross domestic product and the passenger and freight transport service has been very similar."

While other EU countries have on average increased their highway networks by 70 percent since 1991, Germany has only added 10 percent to its own system. Highway planners now work into their calculations the consequences of protests and lawsuits from various interest groups, which have become almost as inevitable as death and taxes.

Difficult birth

Plans for an autobahn between Dresden and the Czech border are not new. The Nazis drew up plans for a highway in 1938, but they were scrapped during the war. The East Germans considered building as well, but their government collapsed before they could start digging. After reunification in 1990, the project got new priority status and in 1991 planning began -- shortly thereafter, so did the protests.

The issue became so contentious that the highway department, for the first time, put the matter to the public in a 1995 referendum, and won. But, to get public approval, the department decided to accommodate many of the concerns of freeway opponents.

Engineers sank most of the autobahn up to twelve meters below the surface, to provide noise protection and give a psychological boost to surrounding residents. "If they can't actually see the freeway, they're less likely to complain about it," the highway department's Reck said.

Spanning the road will be two so-called "green bridges," which were demanded by environmentalists who wanted animals to be able cross the highway safely and by local residents who insisted that a wooded area near the ruins of a manor torn down by the Nazis be preserved. The two bridges cost around €8 million to build.

Krötenzaun

Other environmental protection measures include noise protection panels that line much of the freeway and tunnels and guidance systems that allow protected species of frogs to cross the road. Local bats get their own tunnel with ultrasonic technology to guide them through.

"On average, every third euro for street or highway construction is spent on environmental protection," said Reck.

Quality of life

Urlaub auf der Autobahn

Despite the costs, even those who want to see more kilometers of autobahn and more lanes to already existing ones are wary of jettisoning Germany's strict environmental laws in favor of unfettered highway construction. They say they are necessary to maintain the quality of life in this densely populated country, whose road network is already one of the most extensive in Europe.

But if some costs could come down, experts say, construction could be moved along, and autobahn supply might keep up with future trucking demands.

"Financing is often a problem because of the large expenses involved," Kay Lindemann, head of the traffic policy department at the Federation of German Endustry, told DW-WORLD. "Environmental protection measures often drive those costs up."

Armin Reck, however, is fairly good natured about the costs as well as the drawn-out and often controversial planning and construction process. "We have to respect people's interests, they have to live near the autobahn after all," he said. "Besides, planning started in 1991 and we're going to open one part in October 2004. For us getting such a difficult freeway built, that's almost a world record."

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