When Luxembourg gained independence in 1839, it had a very modest network of only 200 km of roads, which were mostly in a deplorable state. Intersected by dilapidated bridges, transformed into impassable marshes by the slightest shower, criss-crossed with cracks or simply too narrow to permit the passage of large teams of horses, the very few roads made travelling difficult, or even impossible.
The interruption of traffic during the long winter months and exorbitant transport costs created a real bottleneck for the development of the national economy. Worse still, the absence of communications trapped many areas in almost complete isolation. The state of disrepair of the public highways weighed heavily on the country’s destiny.
Implementation of a coherent road network
So the authorities had a duty to take action. However, the implementation of a coherent road network required an administration capable of taking on the challenge.
‘The Public Works Administration is responsible for preparing projects, managing and monitoring constructions built on behalf of the state. (...) This administration has the responsibility of providing for and ensuring the enforcement of laws and regulations [sic] on mines, quarries, plants, water courses and navigable waters (...)’
The law of 6 April 1843
By defining the broad lines of the field of work of the Public Works Administration, the organic law of 6 April 1843 enshrined the principle of the centralisation of the technical divisions. By doing this, it created a special structure, unique in Europe. Nowhere else was there a technical department bringing together under a same roof the officials who dealt indiscriminately with the National Roads, Public Works, Hydraulic Works and Mines sectors. The introduction of the rather unusual system was dictated by the wish to reconcile the country’s “old customs and habits” with the geopolitical situation that arose from the Treaty of London in 1839. After the third dismemberment, the size of the Grand Duchy was too small, and its financial resources were too insignificant, so much so that Luxembourg could not have afforded the luxury of having autonomous specialised departments.
The Public Works Administration was called upon to participate in the calculation of budgetary provisions and to develop all kinds of legal texts, and had to lay out the plans and quotes for new constructions, provide maintenance for existing roads, organise the award of contracts, receive the materials and check the works carried out. In addition, it had to closely monitor the road network by carrying out regular inspection visits.
Dividing the country into two districts
In order to meet all these objectives, the country was divided into two districts, each headed by an engineer, one located in Luxembourg, the other in Diekirch. Each district engineer had site supervisors, students or temporary assistants and a certain number of road menders under his command.
The administrative unity was guaranteed by a chief engineer, posted at the seat of government in the capital. In short, the legislation of 6 April proposed an entity which excelled in its simplicity: a hierarchical institution structured in a rational way and implementing relatively few resources in order to carry out large-scale works.
Sale of Grünewald forest
Thanks to the extraordinary revenue coming from the sale of Grünewald forest, the state was able to focus fully on implementing an ambitious project for road constructions covering the whole territory with a series of major traffic arteries in the shape of a spider’s web around Luxembourg City.
With the laying of roads providing connections to train stations, the network was complete in the 1860s. Its construction in the record time of half a century devoured between 20 and 25% on average of the Grand Duchy’s entire budget! These unparalleled efforts were necessary to establish a link between the county towns, on the one hand, and the connection with Germany, on the other. Since Luxembourg joined the German Customs Union in 1842, this connection with Germany was vitally important, particularly for the survival of the steel works.
Progress thanks to the Public Works Administration
The gradual improvement of communications not only paved the way long in advance for industry to take off; it also opened the way to progress in agriculture thanks to the assistance provided by the Public Works Administration to help the municipalities to repair the network of by-roads.
As of the revolutionary period in 1848, governments had made it a custom to relieve municipal finances, either by distributing grants for the maintenance of farm roads or skidding roads, or by the Treasury taking on the costs incurred in order to build major roads between municipalities. Making a great contribution to reducing isolation, and through this, bringing together populations who were now united in one nation, this policy of providing access to the countryside reached its peak in 1874, when the state started to carry out the programme of ‘chemins repris’.
The advent of the motor car
At the dawn of the 20th century, the appearance of the motor car gave the Public Works Administration a new task. Priority was then given to improving the state of existing roads, as the increasingly dense traffic and growing tonnages of freight trucking meant that strengthening the infrastructure was a vitally important need. In this regard, the Public Works Administration devoted itself to repairing the foundations of roads, paving roads which crossed villages, and asphalting the most frequently used roads.
The post-war period
Works were carried out gradually according to the available budgetary liquid assets, as they were excessively expensive, but were brutally interrupted by the Nazi occupation.
The Liberation saw the Grand Duchy in ruins. The areas to the north of the country in particular had been ravaged by violent fighting in the Battle of the Ardennes, which had left many buildings destroyed or heavily damaged, over one hundred bridges blown up with dynamite and an unusable road network due to shell holes. Suffice to say that more or less everything had to be rebuilt. In 1950, the relevant minister could hardly contain his delight when he announced that the Reconstruction was complete. Five years were enough to deal with the most pressing issues.
The achievement of the Reconstruction went hand in hand with a reorganisation of the administrative structures. The former centralisation of the Public Works Administration, a successful model in the past, was no longer relevant: in order to meet the demanding requirements of modern times, the departments responsible for public roads were set up as the National Roads Administration by a grand-ducal decree on 17 September 1945. This saw the end of a process whose origins date back to the last century, when the architect Charles Arendt was appointed, paving the way for the further specialisation of the technical divisions.
Since the mid-19th century, the increasing number of state buildings that were built meant that there was an urgent need to create a special role reserved for a professional within the Public Works Administration. In close collaboration with his line manager, the chief engineer Albert Rodange, Arendt drafted the plans of an impressive number of public buildings. He also busied himself with the restoration of historic buildings, including the Dënzelt in Echternach and the feudal castle in Vianden. When he retired in 1897, he made way for Prosper Biwer, who in 1905 made way for a man whom most Luxembourgers know first and foremost for his qualities as a watercolourist: Sosthène Weis.
The trend towards decentralisation and the creation of a specific division dealing exclusively with architectural matters became more pronounced over the years. In 1910, this development led to the de facto split of the State Architect’s Department from which the current Public Buildings Administration originates. Like the National Roads Administration, since the end of the Second World War, the Public Buildings Administration has been an autonomous administration placed under the higher authority of the Minister of Public Works.
Equipped with the appropriate structure, the two branches of administration now had everything they needed to meet the imperatives of today’s world. The various consequences of rapid demographic growth in the post-war years and the general extension of the state’s competences obliged the Public Buildings Administration to concentrate its operations on the renovation and extension of social infrastructure, school facilities and buildings housing the various ministries and other departments.
The construction of Europe
In addition, since the beginnings of the construction of Europe during the 1950s, premises housing European Community officials were also built. In light of this, the Guarantee Act of 1970 drafted a flexible and effective framework authorising the Public Buildings Administration to have the buildings pre-financed, where the state handled the security deposit and annuity repayments. For example, this particular method of financing was used in order to construct the European Parliament’s Hemicycle, the Schuman Building and the extension of the Court of Justice on the Kirchberg plateau.
The highways would have a completely new dimension with the creation of the Road Fund. In August 1967, the parliamentary committee established to seek ways and means to adapt the road infrastructure to modern traffic completed its investigations. The conclusions of its inquiry proposed the establishment of a special road fund whilst laying the groundwork for the motorway era. There were three target objectives: bring the different regions of the country closer thanks to the ease of driving without obstacles, increase the prospects for economic expansion in these regions by optimising their accessibility, and linking Luxembourg to the major road networks of neighbouring countries.
The stakes were high: while Europe was on its way to unification, the Grand Duchy could not stay on the sidelines by jeopardising its economic future, and consequently its prosperity. For a good twenty years already, the main concern of the National Roads Administration had been to achieve the grand design which is now reaching its final phase.