Berlin The damage caused by the flood disaster was enormous: in the Ahr Valley, which was particularly affected by the heavy rain, roads were destroyed or severely damaged, and 60 bridges and 60 retaining walls were also hit by the flood.
The Rhineland-Palatinate state government has put the damage at 200 million euros. In the part of North Rhine-Westphalia it is 220 million euros. The railway has reported damage amounting to 1.3 billion euros for the entire area: 600 kilometers of tracks and 80 train stations are affected.
Despite all the drama, 85 percent of the closed roads are “drivable again, under construction or under contract,” reported the State Transport Ministry of North Rhine-Westphalia. This is made possible by a decree from Minister Hendrik Wüst (CDU). According to this, the building authorities can easily rebuild roads and bridges.
They waive approval procedures, environmental compatibility tests or species protection and are allowed to expropriate if it involves “constructive adjustments to the road or bridge structure”. If a road or bridge becomes even more efficient, the upgraded part should go through an approval procedure.
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Orders with a volume of up to 5.3 million euros can be awarded freehand according to the six-eyes principle. In Rhineland-Palatinate, too, it is said that the reconstruction is going “without approval”.
Build faster for climate protection
All of this is soon to become law in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The Bundestag has also corrected the existing infrastructure laws on its affected federal roads and railways via the aid fund for reconstruction in the amount of 30 billion euros. According to this, federal trunk roads in the areas may be “significantly redesigned” in order to “protect the trunk road from natural disasters”.
They may also be relocated if this “takes place in a spatially limited corridor along the route”. This applies almost word for word to the railways. The government justified its waiver of the approval procedure with the fact that this was “necessary for reasons of resilience to future natural events”.
What is possible in times of crisis raises the question: Can future major projects with reference to the climate crisis be implemented quickly – for example, a rail line so that more people can travel by train? Or a Tesla plant in a water protection area, if emission-free cars and the batteries required for propulsion are produced there? Is that the solution to finally successfully pierce the thick board of planning and approval procedures?
Armin Laschet, the Union’s candidate for chancellor, sees it that way. He wants to make the bulky topic the core of a 100-day program, should the Union come into government. Industry, planners and the construction industry also want for future large-scale projects what applies to replacement new buildings in flood areas: fast approval procedures.
That’s easier said than done. Nationwide, more than 3,000 bridges on motorways are ailing. Bridges, which 40 years ago were usually planned for half of the traffic that now rolls over the load carriers.
They would have to be bigger, more stable and, because of the increasing dangers of storms, safer. But this again requires more extensive procedures. “The reconstruction should ensure that comparable events are avoided in the future,” says administrative lawyer Dieter Posch, who once worked for the FDP transport minister in Hesse. He doubts whether the exceptions that have now been created will last. “That doesn’t work in the long run, and certainly not in a constitutional state.”
39 years for seven kilometers of federal highway
Anyone who wants to build new traffic routes must first carry out a spatial planning procedure, environmental impact assessments, an extensive plan approval procedure in which all possible variants are examined and all interests are given their say. That takes a lot of time. Federal Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer knows that too. At the end of August, the CSU politician opened a seven-kilometer stretch of Bundesstraße 31 in Friedrichshafen, including 13 bridges and a tunnel. The road should help to relieve the northern Lake Constance.
The cost of red tape
It took 39 years from the idea to the plans and the legal proceedings to the groundbreaking and the ceremonial act at which the minister was allowed to cut the ribbon. A stream with 2000 stream mussels, which are strictly protected under species protection law, had to be relocated beforehand. “Many have waited a long time for today,” said Scheuer at the meeting.
Sometimes it’s the river mussels, sometimes there are questions in the room, whether the fertility of songbirds is impaired by a construction measure or whether a trail is created between a sauna area and the sunbathing area and then interferes with nature and the landscape. Often, however, it is also issues of expropriation that slow down a project – or errors in the approval process. There are public and private interests as well as nature conservation and environmental concerns. You have to weigh them up.
Experts have been discussing the topic for years. Every transport minister in the Merkel government wanted to simplify the planning and approval process. The Minister of the Interior was also involved when it came to the administrative procedures and, for example, the early public participation that many demanded.
Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer (CSU), for example, presented the Citizen Participation Handbook a good ten years ago and said: “Participation must start as early as possible, even when it is still about the ‘whether’ of a project and not when it is just about it is to change the line by a few meters back or forth. ”However, he also warned of unrealizable expectations:“ We will rarely get large projects conflict-free. ”
Usually only the how is discussed, not the whether
His example was the A 8 project from Munich to Salzburg, which was to be expanded in 2009 following a “citizens’ dialogue”. Justified concerns of citizens should be taken into account, planning should be optimized, procedures efficiently handled and lawsuits against the planning approval decision should be avoided.
The two-year additional effort cost 120 million euros and thus ten percent. The project has not yet been completed, probably also because it was never about whether, as environmentalists argue.
Successor Alexander Dobrindt (CSU) set up a reform commission for major projects and an “innovation forum plan approval” in which all problems were addressed and solutions were even proposed in a final report. His successor, Andreas Scheuer, even passed four laws through the Bundestag with which transport projects should be built and implemented more quickly, such as replacement new buildings.
But none of this solves the basic problem: many questions need to be answered at European level. “There is a lack of implementation and the political will at EU level to lower the hurdles,” complain insiders of the building administration.
One of the requirements is to introduce a deadline rule for appeals in proceedings. But the European Court of Justice rejected this. Proponents, however, hope to achieve what the Administrative Procedure Act actually provides: to complete the approval process within twelve months. “The material preclusion is one of the central building blocks for accelerating planning,” demands Felix Pakleppa, managing director of the Central Association of the German Construction Industry. “This is the only way to really improve the planning and approval procedures.” He advocates an early reconciliation of interests in order to end the “delaying tactics” of project opponents.
Environmentalists encourage early participation
“We don’t need less public participation, but better and earlier. This helps to identify undesirable developments, to correct illegal planning and to generate better approval decisions, ”says Dirk Jansen, managing director of the Federal Environment and Nature Conservation (BUND) in North Rhine-Westphalia. In NRW, the association’s participation did not lead to delays, “but ultimately to better planning”.
Jansen sees the problem more in the administrative structures and in the massive downsizing in the authorities. Along with the staff, the competence to “initiate complicated approval decisions in a legally compliant manner” is also lost.
A good example is the Datteln IV coal-fired power plant. At the end of August, the Münster Higher Administrative Court rejected the development plan for the lignite-fired power plant, which had been on the grid since 2020, as inadmissible. “The planning was completely screwed up from the start – an unparalleled government and political failure,” criticized Jansen.
Union candidate Laschet, meanwhile, wants to restrict the right of group action so that only those affected can raise objections on site. The project is politically explosive. Environmentalist Jansen doubts whether it will help: “As BUND, we are very careful with the instrument of collective action.”
His association would be involved in around 1000 planning and approval procedures per year: “We only take legal action against a handful of them.” He warns against curtailing procedures “massively at the expense of environmental standards and public participation”. That would maybe approve faster. But more mistakes are made, which leads to more lawsuits.
Accordingly, Jansen considers it a mistake to implement replacement new buildings in the flood areas by decree without a permit process. The flood showed how important good planning is. For example, floodplains had previously been built on and risk maps had been disregarded. Laschet’s state government has facilitated the sealing through settlement, traffic and industrial areas. “Anyone who continues such a policy is jointly responsible for all the damage caused by climate change that threatens us in the future.”
Greens also want to build faster for climate policy
But Laschet’s plans could be supported by the Greens of all people. For example, parliamentary group leader Anton Hofreiter wants to convince his own clientele of accelerated procedures by offering them a “deal”: guaranteed species and area protection, but no longer any resistance to the electricity and rail lines necessary for the CO2-free age. “Then they would be there,” he says confidently.
BUND managing director Jansen will probably not be one of them. It would be a mistake if “the Greens themselves are now calling for simplifications in this regard”. Instead, Jansen calls for “uniform expert opinion standards and thus also a better expert opinion quality”.
A bipartisan consensus, as in pension policy, is likely to be needed to solve the problem. Markus Söder, CSU boss and Bavarian Prime Minister, gets to the point: “I support it very much,” he says, to shorten planning times “without restricting opportunities for participation”.
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