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What Willy Brandt International Airport tells us about infrastructure spending

Bigger isn't better.

An aerial view shows the 'Willy Brandt' Berlin-Brandenburg International. Photograph: Getty Images

The myth of German efficiency:

Willy Brandt International Airport, named for Germany's famed Cold War leader, was supposed to have been up and running in late 2011… After four publicly announced delays, officials acknowledged the airport won't be ready by the latest target: October 2013. To spare themselves further embarrassment, officials have refused to set a new opening date…

German media have tracked down a list of tens of thousands of technical problems. Among them: Officials can't even figure out how to turn the lights off. Thousands of light bulbs illuminate the gigantic main terminal and unused parking lots around the clock, a massive energy and cost drain that appears to be the result of a computer system that's so sophisticated it's almost impossible to operate.

Every day, an empty commuter train rolls to the unfinished airport over an eight-kilometer-long (five-mile) stretch to keep the newly-laid tracks from getting rusty, another example of gross inefficiency. Meanwhile, hundreds of freshly planted trees had to be chopped down because a company delivered the wrong type of linden trees; several escalators need to be rebuilt because they were too short; and dozen of tiles were already broken before a single airport passenger ever stepped on them.

It might be entertaining to poke fun – and god knows it's nice to hear a story about this sort of construction-project-gone-wrong in some other country for once – but it's a good reminder that massive infrastructure projects are hard. Like, really, really hard to do. They require immense co-ordination of millions of moving parts, and anything which goes wrong frequently has knock-on effects which reverberate throughout the entire organisation.

That's why the class of things which we lump together as "infrastructure spending" deserves a bit more disaggregation than we currently give it.

The most obvious divide is between so-called "shovel ready" projects and those which are only on the drawing-board, or just a glimmer in a politician's eye. No matter what the final bill for them might be, it will be many years before ideas like Crossrail 2 or new nuclear power stations actually start costing serious amounts of money – and thus many years until any stimulative effect of those projects kicks in. On top of that, the first few years of the project will be putting money into relatively healthy sectors of the economy like legal advice, accounting and planning, only providing stimulus to the beleaguered construction and manufacturing sectors once ground is broken.

But there's also a divide between megaprojects, like the Willy Brandt Airport, and smaller infrastructure investment, like renovating a local train station, or resurfacing a road. The latter can not only get going much faster – and thus hopefully provide stimulus during, rather than after, this recession – but also doesn't have the millions of potential failure points. Now, local infrastructure projects are frequently run just as badly as national ones; but the chance of a four year delay on a six month project is, at least, slim.

So when we say we want infrastructure spending, what that means in practice is a lot of small, nimble, shovel-ready projects.