The German election may be boring to watch, but for Berliners, a separate vote also scheduled for Sept. 24 has provided plenty of intrigue and emotional tension. The citywide plebiscite on whether to close the capital’s Tegel Airport sheds new light on calls for the German government to step up infrastructure investment.

On the surface, the issue is cut-and-dried. Tegel, designed in the 1960s and operational in its current shape since 1974, is surrounded by densely populated residential areas. Of necessity, Tegel is relatively small: It was built to handle 6 million passengers in walled-in west Berlin. It’s a miracle that it somehow managed to serve 21 million in 2016. Berlin, the surrounding state of Brandenburg and the federal government are building a bigger new airport south of the capital, next to Schoenefeld, a cluster of decrepit Soviet-style structures which now serves as Berlin’s secondary gateway.

But there are strong reasons why about 61 percent of Berlin residents (and some 60 percent of Brandenburgers, who don’t get to vote on it on Sept. 24) want Tegel to stay open. They also explain why the Christian Democratic Union party’s Berlin organization is with these voters rather than with party leader Angela Merkel on this issue.

Some of the pro-Tegel sentiment is purely emotional. Berliners love the brutalist masterpiece for its efficient hexagonal design and the famously short time it takes to get to the gate. But then, Tempelhof, the airport that enabled the Berlin Airlift in the late 1940s, was perhaps even more beloved — and Berliners allowed its closure in 2008 when a plebiscite about keeping it open failed due to low turnout. Now, it’s home to an annual kite festival, among other events.

The real reason a majority of Berliners want to keep Tegel open is that they don’t trust the federal and local authorities to handle the new airport project right. The construction began in 2006, and the Berlin Brandenburg Airport Willy Brandt, or BER, was originally supposed to open in 2010, at a cost of some 2.8 billion euros ($3.3 billion). Now, there is no official opening date, and, according to a recent report, construction at BER will only be finished in late 2018, which suggests a 2019 opening.

A special website tracks the mounting costs, which have reached about 5.4 billion euros, most of it funded by government-guaranteed loans. The project has been beset with technical problems incomprehensible to Germans, who are used to engineering excellence. At the heart of the debacle lay a faulty smoke-extraction system, designed for unfathomable reasons by a man who claimed to be, but wasn’t, a qualified engineer. Rebuilding it required an overhaul of the nearly completed structure. And last year, an airport employee was jailed for taking a 150,000 euro bribe from a contractor. 

BER will probably open eventually because the Berlin, Brandenburg and Federal authorities are dead set on it. They’ve been pushing the European Union to approve further loans to the projects, and if it fails, the embarrassment and ridicule will be unbearable. But, given the new airport’s history, many Berliners don’t believe the governments can run BER better than they ran its construction.

BER was planned to handle 27 million passengers a year, and air traffic to Berlin hit 33 million in 2016. If both current airports close, BER will immediately need to be expanded, and, given its less inventive design compared to Tegel, it may not be able to handle the overload in the meantime. When Tegel closure advocates, including Berlin mayor Michael Mueller, point out that Tegel needs a 1 billion euro renovation to keep functioning alongside BER, “Tegel-savers,” as they call themselves, counter that BER’s budget overrun is bigger, and it hasn’t been capped yet.

The liberal Free Democratic Party, which is set to return to the federal parliament this year, turned the Tegel issue into a major campaign weapon in Berlin. The campaign may have helped the FDP and the CDU recover some of the losses they suffered in the regional election last year, when they lost to the leftist parties now making up the city-state’s ruling coalition. The pro-Tegel parties are backed by Ryanair, the budget airline, which has pledged to keep the airport busy and perhaps invest in its renovation. Berlin is forecast to receive 50 million air travelers a year by 2030, and Ryanair has called on the city government to keep both existing airports open after BER is completed.

The plebiscite is not binding, and if Berliners vote to keep Tegel open indefinitely, lawsuits are likely to ensue: Residents of the areas adjacent to Tegel will bemoan broken promises and commerce operators with BER contracts will point out unexpected competition. Besides, both city and federal officials note, the operating permit for BER was conditional on Tegel’s closure, and it may be legally impossible to keep the old airport running once BER opens. But messing with the people’s will in Berlin is dangerous: This is a city with a long tradition of successful civil protest. There’s also the next election to think of. If Mayor Mueller ignores an adverse result of the plebiscite, he and his Social Democratic Party may lose the capital.

The debate over Tegel is also a commentary on the calls for increased public investment in Germany, something the Social Democrats have made one of the key points of their campaign. Responding to their demands for a mandatory public investment rate at state level, Merkel said plenty of money was being allocated — the problem was really with the local and state governments’ ability to carry out projects. BER, located right under the federal government’s nose and built with its participation, shows that the problem exists at the the national level too. Germany may have a reputation for solid project management and cultural resistance to graft, but when it comes to government investment, it faces the same pitfalls as any other country. Renovating  profitable Tegel may be a more efficient solution than pouring public funds into the bottomless pit of BER. And sometimes, it may be better not to fix what’s not broken, even if a fiscal surplus is burning a hole in a government’s pocket.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

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Tags: berlin, germany
Photo Credit: Berlin's Tegel Airport has been slated to close when the city's new airport opens. But some interests want the facility to remain open. Michael Sohn / Associated Press