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Species protection in road construction

Civilization and wilderness, progress and renewed appreciation of the past—in the region between Wiesloch and Weinsberg in the German state of Baden-Württemberg they are only a dormouse hop apart. Here, a well-traveled nearly 50-kilometer-long section of the A6 highway has been expanded since 2017 to become part of European Route E50, which extends from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caspian Sea. This infrastructure project, one of the biggest in Germany, is being implemented by a joint venture that includes HOCHTIEF.

The expansion of the entire highway to six lanes and the construction of a new bridge over the Neckar Valley will cost about 600 million euros. Hundreds of construction workers from many companies are moving thousands of cubic meters of earth, steel, asphalt, and concrete. They’re building a total of 36 bridges, four service areas, 13 kilometers of noise barriers, and almost 80 civil engineering structures. None­theless, at one of the many individual construction sites you may suddenly have the feeling that you’re watching the genesis of a park in the midst of natural surroundings.

Making room for nature

Southwest of the town of Offenau in the Neckar Valley, the noise of the A6 is only a distant murmur. Here the ViA6West project company, in which HOCHTIEF PPP Solutions holds shares, is cooperating with the German government, the state of Baden-Württemberg, and local communities to show that even massive highway improvement projects can produce idyllic settings. Below the picturesque town of Bad Wimpfen, which rises high above the Neckar Valley, the air is fragrant with blossoming wild plants and swarming with insects. An enchanting and tranquil biotope is being formed here.

This region was formerly monoculture farmland, but today 40,000 square meters of it is a refuge for flora, fauna, and the Neckar River. The river needs new water meadows for its annual floods. “Now the Neckar once again has room to expand,” says Michael Endres, Head of Communication at ViA6West, proudly stretching out his arms as he stands in rubber boots in an insect-infested muddy field created by warm summer rain. HOCHTIEF and its ­project partners have hired communication experts for their large-scale projects. “This is improving local acceptance of our projects,” says HOCHTIEF manager Simon Dony, the Managing Director of ViA6West.

“What yields to progress at the highway construction site is being replaced here by our nature conservation measures,” says Endres, who lives in nearby Sinsheim. Since last April, five big excavators have turned the churned-up riverbank into an artificial river delta as big as four soccer fields. It’s a fairly good offset for the soil sealing due to the construction of a massive bridge over the Neckar. “This area is really being upgraded,” says Endres. In spite of the heavy machinery, it’s already clear that this is fertile soil, as evidenced by the remaining age-old trees and freshly planted black poplars that are reflected in the rain puddles.

In the fall of 2019, the Neckar will already flow around wooded islands filled with 1,430 new plantings of every kind created by landscape architects, populated by wild animals, and closed off to human visitors. “The nature conservation boards can really do their job here,” says Endres. This will be a wilderness where the river can once again overflow its banks.

 » WHAT YIELDS TO PROGRESS AT THE CONSTRUCTION SITE IS BEING REPLACED BY OUR NATURE CONSERVATION MEASURES.  «

MICHAEL ENDRES, VIA6WEST

CAREFUL PLANNING

Compensatory measures for infrastructure projects aren’t always large areas reconstituted to resemble natural settings. In some cases, small improvements that benefit single protected species are even more important. Some transportation projects have already been delayed in order to protect communities of dormice, kestrels, sand lizards or bats. At the roadwork site between Mannheim and Heilbronn, some work shifts have been postponed. “During the entire construction period, five hiber­nation and nesting periods for each one of several species have been taken into account,” says Endres. “That often complicates our plans.” However, these challenges have been met. No matter which phase of construction had to be adapted to protect local wildlife and safeguard habitats, the partners always came up with the right solutions. Over 50 signs mark “Compensation Areas for Species Conservation” along the A6. 

In a plot of land called the “Ear” near the highway exit to Sinsheim, the hum of an average of 100,000 vehicles per day is too loud to ignore. But a warm breeze is blowing through a flourishing thicket of wild plants that has already replaced a ViA6West storage area for heavy machinery and replacement soil. Nature always finds a way—sometimes with a bit of help from civilization.A knee-high fence keeps reptiles away from the traffic and offers them a refuge among the thick undergrowth. A roomy box hangs one meter higher up, with an opening on the tree side that allows dormice to use it as a home. Endres calls it their “luxury apartment.” Animals are once again starting to creep, fly, flutter, and buzz here, as though the rush hour traffic that is thundering over the new asphalt only a stone’s throw away did not exist. Specially designed piles of stone and wood offer a permanent refuge for lizards, rodents, insects, and birds that would otherwise be hard put to find places to live. Such interventions are necessary, not only in the pleasantly hilly region along the A6 that is called “Germany’s ­Tuscany” but also wherever infrastructure measures seal the soil under asphalt and concrete.

A WIN FOR WILDCATS

As a rule, it takes years to find out whether and how compensatory measures have developed successfully. One example of that is the border area between the German states of Hesse and Thuringia near the town of Eisenach. Eleven years ago, HOCHTIEF and its partners completed a complex rerouting of highway A4 and put measures in place to lure wildcats—a shy and extremely rare species—into a renaturalized area.The measures included highway crossings, species-appropriate plantings, and railings. “These animals are hard to spot,” says Alexander Neumann, the project company’s former Managing Director, “but the environmentalists from the BUND organization have already sighted a few populations.” Moreover, thanks to the compensatory measures, non-native plant species such as Danish scurvygrass have suddenly settled in a region that was previously closed to foreign contacts. This species has settled here because of the saline soil created by winter road clearance. Neumann still drives regularly from his workplace in the Netherlands to revisit his old stamping grounds. “I’m thrilled to see how nature has reconquered the Thuringian Forest,” he says. On his way there, he sometimes passes the reforestation areas near Bremerhaven. These are part of a compensatory measure that was implemented by a consortium headed by HOCHTIEF almost simultaneously with its expansion of the local container terminal. In a logistical masterstroke, the consortium relocated the ecologically significant Weddewarder Tief tidal flat, which drains large areas of the hinterland.

These three examples show that in the places where our highly mobile consumer society takes its toll, we are compensating nature to the best of our ability. Believers in progress might dismiss these efforts as a hobby for tree-huggers, but professionals like Endres have long regarded them as being far more than a nod to plant and animal lovers. “Everything that happens along the A6 serves the region and its inhabitants,” he says. Jörg Albrecht, the mayor of Sinsheim, welcomes the major construction site in his community, because the expansion of the highway to six lanes “will radically reduce traffic jams and accidents” (see the interview with Jörg Albrecht.). In addition, less congestion will reduce pollutant emissions, and the protective walls and porous asphalt will shield local residents from traffic noise. Besides, according to Wadim Strangfeld, the project’s technical manager from HOCHTIEF, over a third of the construction materials used for building the asphalt roadbed are recycled materials from old highways. Strangfeld believes that the construction along the A6 represents a balance between conflicting interests, largely due to the PPP principle of cooperation between the public sector and private companies.

FASTER REACTION TIMES

HOCHTIEF already participates in many PPP projects in Germany and abroad. HOCHTIEF manager Simon Dony, the Managing Director of ViA6West, knows why the number of these projects is growing: “Because in effect we are both the client and the contractor, there’s no needless friction.” The PPP expert Gerald Hauke from HOCHTIEF PPP Solutions adds that whereas the federal government always implements projects one section at a time, “we can constantly move our workers from one construction site to another and simply go on working.” Of course surprises can occur even when public tasks are transferred to private companies. When there’s congestion on a highway, it doesn’t matter whether the blockage is caused by a public or a private builder. But Hauke believes that a PPP project “can react to congestion more flexibly” and thus save time, which in our hectic era is as valuable as pure gold. The global players based in Baden-Württemberg are served by about 30,000 heavy-duty trucks, and the local people’s attitude toward roadwork is “Get on with it! But be quick!” And the consortium complies.

According to Strangfeld, during the project’s first two years almost every subproject was completed on schedule. So was the key component of the new Neckar Valley Bridge. Such efficiency, along with the fact that almost all the subcontractors participating in the A6 project come from the surrounding region, has earned great acceptance from the local population. The compensatory and species protection measures will probably increase this acceptance further.Today people can watch sheep grazing around the rainwater retention basin of the A6 and making lawnmowers unnecessary, thanks to their taste for woody undergrowth. They can see wildflower meadows flourishing beside the thundering daily traffic and look through a bat tunnel near ­Dielheim. They might even compare these scenes to an idyllic landscape painting by Caspar David Friedrich. Civilization and wilderness, progress and an appreciation of the past—when infrastructure measures are well-planned, these are no longer irreconcilable contradictions.