In the Fast Lane to Controversy | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 17.10.2005
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In the Fast Lane to Controversy

The Autobahn is a German icon, right up there with beer and Oktoberfest. So a controversial proposal to sell off the country's renowned highway system has, expectedly, kicked up a storm of protest.

The Autobahn is known for the absence of speed limits

The Autobahn is known for the absence of speed limits

If Social Democrat Peer Steinbrück had planned to ease quietly into his new role as Germany's finance minister, he missed the chance.

Surely, it will not be easy to take over the "poisoned chalice" cabinet appointment, given the ongoing struggle to plug gaping holes in the German budget. But Steinbrück's comments over the weekend that the new government would consider privatizing the Autobahn has unleashed a storm of opposition.

Verkehr Autobahn

Traffic jams would still be'Made in Germany', however

Steinbrück -- who is expected to be named the country's finance minister later Monday when chancellor-elect Angela Merkel names her cabinet in Berlin -- made the comment in a weekend interview with German newspaper Bild am Sonntag.

Steinbrück: No auto tolls

"We have to weigh (the option) carefully," Steinbrück said when the paper asked him whether the grand coalition government of Social Democrats and the conservatives would consider selling states assets such as the national highway network.

"The discussion over such things is just beginning, and my opinion is in no way set," he said.

But Steinbrück denied that considering the move means he indirectly supports a toll system for passenger cars. A controversial toll system for trucks went into effect last year.

"I want to make it clear that I have in no way argued in favor of creating a toll system for passenger cars," Steinbrück told the Reuters news service. He also stressed that the Finance Ministry had not even commissioned a report on the value of selling the highway system.

Sale would bring benefits

But a speaker for the Transportation Ministry under the outgoing government told Reuters that selling the Autobahn would amount to nothing less than a toll on cars. Current Transportation Minister Manfred Stolpe has "clearly rejected" such a proposal. Incumbent Economy Minister Wolfgang Clement had already proposed such a move two years ago, and it was rejected at the time, the spokesman said.

Urlaub auf der Autobahn

A typical scene on Germany's famed highways

But a sale of the 12,000 kilometer (7,500 mile) Autobahn network could help alleviate Germany's dire budget shortfall. According to Bild am Sonntag, a three-year-old report commissioned in connection with the truck toll system said the German Autobahn would fetch around 127 billion euros ($153 billion).

International investment firms Goldman Sachs and Barclays have already begun jockeying for position with the finance and transport ministries for a role in any potential sale. Such a sale could reduce German debt by 890 billion euros, or 15 percent, in one go.

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