Congestion-busting infrastructure plays catch-up on long-neglected needs


Phillip O’Neill, Western Sydney University

Infrastructure spending is one of the central themes of Treasurer Frydenberg’s budget speech. His headline announcement was the promise to increase the ten-year federal infrastructure spend from the A$75 billion announced last year to a target of $100 billion.

Major projects previously announced – like the Melbourne Airport rail link, Western Sydney’s north-south airport rail link and Queensland’s Bruce Highway upgrade – are affirmed. A fast rail connection from Melbourne to Geelong is added. Also added are nation-wide packages of roadworks targeted at reducing congestion and improving regional freight corridors.

So the announcements continue the infrastructure program detailed in the 2018-19 budget, as promoted regularly in the government’s expensive “Building Our Future” advertising campaign that gives prominence to the government’s ten-year “Infrastructure Pipeline”.




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Infographic: Budget 2019 at a glance


Lack of transparency is an issue

It needs saying that analysts have found it difficult to verify what last year’s $75 billion promise actually involved. The claim is the subject of a major investigative paper by the Australian Parliamentary Library, with its authors observing:

The Parliamentary Library has been unable to locate any public document which provides a transparent overview of [the federal government’s] total infrastructure commitments.

One suspects that scrutiny over coming weeks of the $100 billion infrastructure spending promises will be thwarted by a repetition of this lack of transparency.

Why are infrastructure needs so great?

The national population growth story is the key framework for assessing the Coalition’s infrastructure plan. Between 1901 and 1948, the nation grew steadily, but modestly, from a population of 3.8 million to 7.7 million. Then the population surged on the back of a post-war baby boom and an expansion of immigration. The population grew by between 2.0 and 2.5 million people each decade from the 1950s through to the 2000s.

But in the last decade, the nation has added nearly 6 million people, with the east coast cities overwhelmingly hosting the increase. Urban infrastructure planning and spending have lagged. Both quality of life and economic productivity have been affected adversely as a consequence.

The infrastructure spending in this budget responds to community concerns about these declines.

We now know we failed to properly plan for and fund the surge in urban growth that has carried congestion on its back. Instead, large federal government surpluses from the 1990s were steered into debt paybacks.

The Future Fund was also created to cover public service pension liabilities. That fund is now custodian of over $150 billion worth of assets.

Dissolving pension liabilities is wise economic management. Australia’s problem is that this resolution took place at the expense of national capital works spending. Around this time, the state-owned utilities that had taken responsibility for the roll-out of post-war infrastructure – with their regular, predictable annual capital works budgets and their vast in-house planning and delivery offices – were on their last legs.

The loss of committed funding and the erosion of the utilities stalled infrastructure delivery at a time in Australian history when it was most needed. The urban infrastructure projects for coping with the acceleration of urban growth are only now coming on stream.

New funding streams have had to be found, led by a new round of state-based asset sell-offs – in New South Wales especially – and new models of private sector delivery, ownership and operation. Pretty much all new urban infrastructure projects in Australia are now some sort of private public partnership.

But, as this budget confirms, private sector involvement in infrastructure spending and delivery needs to be leveraged on the back of public funding and protected from project risk by a raft of government measures. An important risk amelioration measure involves decision-making technologies.

Here, the growing expertise within the federal government’s Infrastructure Australia unit is increasingly important. Established by the Rudd Labor government a decade ago, IA struggled for legitimacy for many years. Now we can see Infrastructure Australia’s priority lists – based on its independent assessments – dominating government budget announcements. Indeed, the government’s ten-year Infrastructure Investment Pipeline is a very close reproduction of Infrastructure Australia’s national priority listing. Which is a good thing.

Why the focus on roads?

The problem, of course, is that rather than infrastructure steering urban growth, as would have been the case had the Howard Coalition government not dramatically lowered the level of national capital works spending, infrastructure spending now chases urban growth.

Not surprisingly, the Morrison government packages a bundle of roads spending as “urban congestion” measures, acknowledging that transport planning has been inadequate.




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The concentration on roads spending also acknowledges that the millennial growth surge in our cities has been geographically perverse. Greenfields residential projects are rarely aligned to public transport systems. And jobs growth has been a mix of CBD obsession and suburban scatter.

The result is congestion of antiquated CBD-centric public transport systems and suburban journey-to-work patterns that make retrofitting of public transport an impossible task.

No doubt there will be criticism of this budget’s apparent obsession with roads spending. The unfortunate reality is that large sections of our cities are stuck with the roads-based configuration that was instilled into their DNA from the get-go. Roads – not rail – are the thoroughfares that define transport options across our new suburban areas into the future.

Getting used to road spending and having constructive things to say about road use are a major challenge.The Conversation

Phillip O’Neill, Director, Centre for Western Sydney, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Blocking Chinese gas takeover won’t damage Australia’s foreign investment pipeline



File 20181121 161621 4s3rkd.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A single foreign company having sole ownership and control over Australia’s most significant gas transmission business, says Australia’s treasurer, is not in the national interest.
Shutterstock

Simon Segal, Macquarie University

The Morrison government’s decision to block Hong Kong’s largest infrastructure company from buying one of Australia’s key infrastructure companies seems to make a complicated relationship with China even more fraught.

Rejections of foreign takeover bids are extremely rare. This is just the sixth such decision in nearly two decades.

It might be argued the blocking of the A$13 billion bid for gas pipeline operator APA Group by Cheung Kong Infrastructure (CKI) Holdings reflects increasing politicisation of Australia’s process for reviewing foreign investment.

But this is not a political shot across the bows like China’s announced anti-dumping probe into imports of Australian barley. This takeover proposal was always doubtful. News of its knock-back potentially damaging relations with China, or foreign investment more generally, are greatly exaggerated.




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Always unlikely

APA Group owns 15,000 km of natural gas pipelines and supplies about half the gas used in Australia. It owns or has interests in gas storage facilities, gas-fired power stations, and wind and solar renewable energy generators.


APA Group’s infrastructure assets.
APA

Back in September, after APA accepted the takeover offer from a CKI-led consortium, the investment research company Morningstar judged it unlikely that Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board would approve the bid.

The board is only an advisory body. The final decision rests with the federal treasurer. Josh Frydenberg signalled his intention to block the deal in early November, giving CKI a few weeks to change its proposal, either by selling assets or finding other investment partners, enough to change his mind.

That did not happen. Frydenberg’s final decision to block the bid was based, he said, on “a single foreign company group having sole ownership and control over Australia’s most significant gas transmission business”.

He emphasised the government remained committed to welcoming foreign investment: “foreign investment helps support jobs and rising living standards.”

It’s not all about CKI

CKI is not state-controlled. It is headed by the son of Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, and has a history of considerable success in investing in Australia.

Nonetheless speculation about the rejection damaging the Australia-China relationship has ensued. In the words of the South China Morning Post: “As the most China-dependent developed economy, Australia potentially has a lot to lose should relations with its biggest trading partner deteriorate further.”




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Let’s put this into perspective.

First, there is broad bipartisan agreement that foreign investment is crucial to Australia’s economic prosperity.

Second, as already mentioned, this is just the sixth major public foreign investment proposal blocked since 2000. (All but one, notably, have been by Liberal treasurers.)

Third, all six rejections have been case-specific. Each bid has been considered on its merits.

This case arguably has less to with CKI being Chinese linked than with the size and significance of APA, whose transmission system includes three-quarters of the pipes in NSW and Victoria.

In 2016 CKI’s A$11 billion bid for NSW electricity distributor Ausgrid was also blocked (by then-treasurer Scott Morrison) on national security grounds.

But in 2017 CKI won approval for its A$7.4 billion bid for West Australian-focused electricity and gas distribution giant DUET. And in 2014 CKI’s acquisition of gas distributor Envestra (now Australian Gas Networks) was also cleared.

Shifting emphasis

This is not to deny that politics played a part in Frydenberg’s decision.

The seven-person FIRB board was divided (the exact votes are not known). The Treasurer’s call could have gone either way.

Forces within the Liberal Party that opposed Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership have also been deeply hostile to APA’s sale to CKI. Among the most vociferous was NSW senator Jim Molan, who warned of “hidden dragons” in the deal.

For a minority government lagging in the polls and just months away from an election, such views have assumed inflated importance.

Nonetheless the APA decision was not a surprise. Greater scrutiny is now part and parcel of the Foreign Investment Review Board process. In particular, the emphasis has firmly shifted over the past few years to scrutinising national security and taxation areas.




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The Critical Infrastructure Centre within the Department of Home Affairs, which became fully operational this year, brings together capability from across the federal government to manage national security risks from foreign involvement in Australia’s critical infrastructure. It’s particularly focused on telecommunications, electricity, gas, water and ports.

David Irvine, who has chaired the Foreign Investment Review Board since April 2017, is a former head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

This shifting emphasis does not equate to a bias against foreign investment per se. There is no evidence investors, including Chinese, are being discouraged or significantly deterred from investing in Australia.

CKI itself demonstrates, by returning to Australia despite previous rejections, that foreign investors will not give up so long as the next deal stacks up. There is already speculation CKI has moved on, and now has its eyes on Spark Infrastructure, an ASX-listed owner of energy asset.The Conversation

Simon Segal, PhD research candidate, Business, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

If there’s one thing Pacific nations don’t need, it’s yet another infrastructure investment bank


Susan Engel, University of Wollongong

If Scott Morrison was looking for a way to prove Australia is a good neighbour to Pacific nations, he could hardly have chosen a worse option.

Looking for a policy to combat both China and his domestic Opposition, the Australian prime minister last week announced a plan involving billions of dollars for Pacific nations.

Billions of dollars in loans, that is.

He promised A$2 billion for an Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific to invest in projects focusing on the telecommunications, energy, transport and water sector. And another A$1 billion to Efic, Australia’s government-backed Export Finance and Insurance Corporation, for concessional credit to Pacific projects.

The plan is driven in part by a desire to combat China’s economic diplomacy in the Pacific. There is concern that island nations will end up indebted to Chinese creditors.

So why would Morrison want to offer Pacific Island nations even more debt?

Chinese cheques

The AIFFP has rightly been called a response to Chinese development finance in the Pacific. This is mostly from the Chinese Development Bank, not the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which China initiated in 2013. Fiji, Samoa and Vanuatu are the only Pacific island nations that have so far joined the AIIB, and they have not received any loans. However, the Cook Islands, Papua New Guinea and Tonga have expressed an intent to join.




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As with many initiatives, the devil is in the detail of the Australian response.

Morrison has already indicated there will be no increase in Australia’s already stingy aid budget. Given his criticism of multilateral organisations as “useless”, it seems likely the AIFFP’s A$2 billion will come from diverting contributions that would have gone to United Nations agencies or other programs for low-income countries not in the Pacific.

While a greater focus on the Pacific is welcome given the region’s needs, it should not come at the expense of other countries with equally pressing challenges. Further, the shift from grants to loans is not welcome news.

Apart from an interest-free loan to Indonesia following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed about 170,000 Indonesians, Australian aid has long been fully grant-based. That has been one of its key strengths.

It has left debt-based development financing to the multilateral development banks it helps fund, in particular the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the new AIIB.

Debt concerns

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s joint Development Committee warned about debt concerns for developing nations last month. Debt vulnerabilities risked “reversing the benefits of earlier debt relief initiatives”, it said in a communique from the annual meetings of its parent organisations held in Bali last month.

At the meetings, it was clear the IMF was more concerned about debt than the World Bank. Indeed the World Bank and its affiliates were successful in gaining a very large capital increase – US$13 billion in paid-in capital from member states, with the aim that it increase lending to US$100 billion a year by 2030.

The World Bank also had a large capital increase after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, as did other development banks. These increases were not just in response to the crisis but also underpinned by concerns about competition from China and other emerging powers.




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With the AIIB and the New Development Bank (established by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa in 2015), there are now about 27 multilateral development banks.

Further, many countries have development finance institutions like Australia’s planned AIFFP, and export-import banks like Australia’s Efic. On top of that, private finance is at record highs.

The case for more debt-based development financing is just not there.

Pacific situation

Of 13 Pacific island countries, six are already considered at high risk of debt distress. In a couple of cases is that due to Chinese finance. In other cases the multilateral development banks are the biggest creditors. Four other countries are at moderate risk of debt distress.


https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/wByUC/3/


Adding to those debts is not a wise or decent thing for Australia to do. Even the government’s former minister for international development and the Pacific, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, has warned about debt.

Most Pacific island communities have limited potential to develop along standard capitalist lines. Debt-based development requires projects with substantial economic rates of return and strong cash flows, which is difficult in small island states. Large hard infrastructure projects are risky, as Australia has learned in Vanuatu, and need to be climate change proofed.




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For Pacific Island nations, rising sea levels are a bigger security concern than rising Chinese influence


The AIFFP reflects a new global mantra focused on replacing aid with lending money for infrastructure. It is not responding any demand from the Pacific. Core parts of the Sustainable Development Goals like health, education and climate sustainability are being ignored. It remains to be seen if anyone in the region embraces it.The Conversation

Susan Engel, Senior Lecturer, Politics and International Studies, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Infrastructure splurge ignores smarter ways to keep growing cities moving


Marion Terrill, Grattan Institute

This week we’re exploring the state of nine different policy areas across Australia’s states, as detailed in Grattan Institute’s State Orange Book 2018. Read the other articles in the series here.


It’s already started. We may be only entering the formal election campaign in Victoria tonight, but massive transport announcements are in full swing from the state Labor government, the Coalition opposition and the Greens. And with an election due next March in New South Wales, we can be sure the major parties in that state won’t be far behind.

Expanding the capacity of the transport network always gets far more attention than other ways of managing a fast-growing population. In reality, though, governments have a far bigger menu of options to keep Australia’s capital cities moving – and they should use them all.




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We hardly ever trust big transport announcements – here’s how politicians get it right


Big spending promises all round

The swag of promises in Victoria to date has been big on rail. The Andrews government would, if returned, build a 90km suburban rail loop connecting all major suburban lines. Work is to start in 2022 at an announced cost of A$50 billion.

A Matthew Guy-led Coalition government would, if elected, build high-speed-rail to regional cities. The first trains would come into operation within four years, at an announced cost of A$15-19 billion.

And the Greens? They would upgrade suburban rail signalling and add 100 extra high-capacity trains, at a cost of A$8.5 billion.




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Missing evidence base for big calls on infrastructure costs us all


If talkback radio is any guide, these plans are popular. People love the idea of a magnificent new rail system that perhaps they’ll use or, more likely, that they hope all those people who currently clog up the roads will use instead. After all, Melbourne is a very car-dependent city. And, with three-quarters of all the jobs dispersed all over the city, that’s unlikely to change much any time soon.

People also love big new infrastructure because it feels as though it comes for free. While a politician may have to pick just one from a menu of large projects, voters don’t have to confront this kind of choice.

Rather, we face the difference between a new station or service near our home, or no such new station or service. If you are the beneficiary of a new rail service, you may support the candidate promising it. By contrast, the losers are dispersed, and it’s hard to get too agitated about services we never had.

Look more closely at what is happening

But new transport infrastructure is far from the only way to cope with population growth. Even though Melbourne has had extremely high population growth, averaging 2.3% a year over the five years to 2016, commuting distances and times have remained remarkably stable.

The median commute distance for Melburnians barely increased, from 8.6km to 8.7km, over the five years to the most recent Census in 2016. The median commute time has remained at 30 minutes each way since 2007.

Notes: Working-age respondents to the Hilda Survey report commuting times for a typical week. These are converted here to times for an individual trip. BITRE (2016) finds that the travel times HILDA respondents report closely match other measures of travel times, further supported by Grattan analysis of Transport for Victoria (2018).
Source: Grattan analysis of HILDA (2016), Author provided



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Our fast-growing cities and their people are proving to be remarkably adaptable


These stable commute times and distances have coincided with a period of only limited new infrastructure construction. Victoria’s additions – Regional Rail Link, Peninsula Link and the M80 Ring Road – are modest compared to Queensland and NSW’s. The road stock in Melbourne increased by 4.3% over the five years to 2015, significantly less than the population increase of 11.9%.

The A$1.3 billion CityLink Tullamarine widening project finished recently, and the A$8.3 billion level crossing removal project is more than half-completed, but these projects are too new to explain the remarkable stability of commutes over the period of booming population.

Despite only modest new infrastructure, people have adapted. Some have changed job or worksite, and working from home is on the rise. Some people moved house, or even left the city. And some changed their method of travel, leaving the car at home and catching the train, tram or bus to work. Other people simply accepted a longer commute, at least for a time, and particularly if they were earning more.

Of course, not everyone is better off when the population grows rapidly. Some people elect not to take a new job that’s too far from home; some pay higher rent, or cannot afford a place they once could have. But the lesson from Melbourne is that people are not hapless victims of population growth, depending for their well-being on governments building the next freeway or rail extension.

So what are the best ways to help cities cope?

The Grattan Institute’s State Orange Book 2018 recommends that governments work with, not against, the adaptations that people make. Here are three ways state governments can help:

  1. They should stop making it so hard to move house, by replacing stamp duty with a broad-based land tax.
  2. They should stop locking new residents out of their preferred locations, by combining a relaxation of zoning restrictions on residential density with clear assignment of on-street parking rights.
  3. The incoming governments of Victoria and NSW should introduce time-of-day road congestion charges in the most congested parts of Melbourne and Sydney (offset by a cut to vehicle registration fees), with the funds earmarked for public transport improvements.

Let’s see what the vying parties can do.The Conversation

Marion Terrill, Transport Program Director, Grattan Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Privatising WestConnex is the biggest waste of public funds for corporate gain in Australian history



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Gladys Berejiklian’s government will pay for much of WestConnex construction, give away other toll roads, guarantee annual toll increases and force motorists to use the toll road.
AAP Image/Joel Carrett

Christopher Standen, University of Sydney

The NSW government has confirmed it will sell 51% of WestConnex — the nation’s biggest road infrastructure project — to a consortium led by Transurban, the nation’s biggest toll road corporation.

NSW treasurer Dominic Perrottet described the A$9.3 billion sale to one of his party’s more generous donors as a “very strong result”.

I would describe it differently: the biggest misuse of public funds for corporate gain in Australia’s history.

Let’s examine how much public funding has been or will be sunk into WestConnex, a 33km toll road linking western Sydney with southwestern Sydney via the inner west.

Privatising Westconnex will return the NSW government 30 cents for every dollar of public money spent.
WestConnex Business Case Executive Summary

To date, the NSW and federal governments have provided grants of about $6 billion. Much of this was raised through selling revenue-generating public assets, including NSW’s electricity network.

Hiding privatisation by stealth

As well, the NSW government is bundling three publicly owned motorways into the sale: the M4 (between Parramatta and Homebush), the M5 East and the M5 Southwest (from 2026). Together, Credit Suisse values these public assets at A$9.2 billion. The government is privatising them by stealth. Leaked NSW cabinet documents suggest the Sydney Harbour Bridge will be next.

Then there is the A$1.5 billion bill for property acquisitions and the millions spent on planning, advertising, consultants, lawyers and bankers.

The government is funding extra road works to help prop up WestConnex toll revenue. It will increase the capacity of road corridors feeding into the interchanges. But it will reduce the number of traffic lanes on roads competing with WestConnex, such as Parramatta Road.




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It will also pick up the bill for building a A$2.6 billion airport connection and the complex underground interchange at Rozelle. It will even pay compensation if the latter is not completed on schedule.

To further bolster toll revenue, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian introduced a vehicle registration cashback scheme for toll-road users.

Her government has also committed to continuing the M5 Southwest toll cashback scheme. The cost of these incentives to the public purse is likely to exceed A$2 billion every ten years.

In total, I estimate the NSW government is pumping more than A$23 billion worth of cash, public assets, enabling works and incentives into WestConnex — though efforts to shield the scheme from public scrutiny mean the figure could be much higher.

Finally, as part of the deal with Transurban, the government has agreed to plough A$5.3 billion of the sale proceeds back into WestConnex. It’s recouping just A$4 billion by selling majority ownership.

This translates to a financial return of 34 cents for every dollar spent.

Government expenses and receipts.

Of course, governments don’t always spend our money with the intention of making a profit. Usually there are broader social benefits that justify the expenditure. However, past experience shows inner-city motorways do more harm than good — which is why many cities around the world are demolishing them.

Given its proximity to residential areas, WestConnex will have serious impacts on Sydney’s population. Construction is already destroying communities, harming people’s health and disrupting sleep and travel — with years more to come.

Motorists who cannot afford the new tolls on the M4 ($2,300 a year) and M5 East ($3,100 a year) will have to switch to congested suburban roads. This will mean longer journey times — especially with the removal of traffic lanes on Parramatta Road.

New tolls on existing motorways.

Those who do opt to pay the new tolls may enjoy faster journeys for a few years — until the motorways fill up again.

Costs outweigh the benefits

But this benefit will be largely cancelled out by the tolls they have to pay — with low-income households in western Sydney bearing much of the pain. As such, the ultimate beneficiary will be a corporation that pays no company tax and employs very few people.

Traffic and congestion on roads around the interchanges will increase significantly. Moreover, with tolls for trucks three times those for cars, we can expect to see them switching to suburban and residential streets — especially between peak hours and at night.

The extra traffic created by WestConnex will lead to more road trauma, traffic noise and air pollution across the Sydney metropolitan area. With unfiltered smokestacks being built next to homes and schools, more people may be at risk of heart disease, lung disease and cancer in years to come.




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On any measure, the WestConnex sale is not in the public interest. The billions of dollars ploughed into the scheme would have been better spent on worthwhile infrastructure or services that improve people’s lives.

Is the WestConnex acquisition a good deal for Transurban? A$9.3 billion may sound like a high price, given the past financial collapses of other Australian toll roads.

However, with the Berejiklian government agreeing to fund most of the remaining construction, giving away the M4 and M5, guaranteeing annual toll increases of at least 4%, and bending over backwards to force motorists under the toll gantries, it can only be described as a “very strong result” for the consortium, though not for taxpayers.The Conversation

Christopher Standen, Transport Analyst, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Missing evidence base for big calls on infrastructure costs us all


Hugh Batrouney, Grattan Institute

When the case for big transport projects is made without due analysis, we risk building the wrong projects. The result is we waste billions of dollars and rob ourselves of the infrastructure our booming cities need to be more liveable. Given how fast our big cities are growing, we simply can’t afford to make decisions based on limited or misleading information. Yet this keeps happening.

Two stark examples – proposed rail links to Western Sydney and Melbourne airports and road congestion charges – illustrate the problem in different ways.

The proposed airport rail links show how governments continue to make huge taxpayer commitments to projects before they are able to articulate the costs, benefits and risks.

In the case of proposed road congestion charges we see an important reform languishing. This is because when reforms rest on obscure or unclear analysis they inevitably fail to generate public support.


Read more: Western Sydney Aerotropolis won’t build itself – a lot is riding on what governments do
Airport rail link can open up new possibilities for the rest of Melbourne


Funding pledges don’t wait for a business case

In the case of the recently announced multi-billion-dollar investments in airport rail in Western Sydney and Melbourne, neither project has a business case. Yet politicians on both sides tripped over themselves in committing to building them.

There are good reasons to be wary of their eagerness. A government study released this year stated that Western Sydney airport rail wouldn’t be needed to cater for customers and workers at the airport until 2036 at the earliest. Without a business case, we have no way to understand the grounds on which the government still believes this project represents value for money.




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In the case of Melbourne airport rail, the project’s route hasn’t been resolved, let alone its costs, ticket pricing structure, or potential benefits. Infrastructure Australia’s most recent priority list did not include a proponent for the project.

And Infrastructure Victoria says upgrading airport bus services should be investigated first. This is because, at A$50-100 million, bus services would be a much cheaper way to tackle the same problem. It has also said the rail line should be delivered – but not for at least 15 years.




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Touting estimated benefits without showing calculations

The second example of Australia’s transport planning information deficit is different but still damaging. It concerns the way infrastructure experts encourage governments to make worthwhile but politically challenging reforms to how we use existing infrastructure. The idea is to get more value from the assets we already have.

Infrastructure Australia advocates a road congestion tax. This would replace annual registration fees and petrol taxes with a scheme that charges motorists more when they travel in congested places at congested times.

It’s a very good idea. Indeed, a Grattan Institute report last year recommended governments think seriously about road congestion charges for Sydney and Melbourne. But the way Infrastructure Australia has mounted the case leaves a lot to be desired.




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Last month, Infrastructure Australia released estimates of the benefits, prepared with PwC, of a scheme to charge motorists more precisely according to the location, time and distances they travel. According to these estimates, in just over a decade, Australia’s GDP would be A$21 billion larger every year – and this would increase to A$36.5 billion a year by 2047.

The problem is that Infrastructure Australia provides little information about how these enormous numbers were calculated. In a flawless example of circular reasoning, IA refers to analysis done by PwC. PwC in turn notes that the estimates were “collaboratively developed by IA and PwC”.

The calculations do not appear to have included the costs of implementing and running such a scheme. And we have been told nothing about how this grand plan might work in practice.

Converting reductions in travel times to increases in GDP

The most commonly cited estimates of the “avoidable costs” of congestion in Australia come from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics. In 2015, BITRE estimated the annual costs for Australia’s eight capitals totalled about A$16.5 billion. This was forecast to rise to about A$30 billion by 2030.

Such estimates have been important in highlighting the fact that congestion is not just aggravating but costly. But such estimates are, as BITRE itself states, “very blunt instruments for estimating and projecting congestion occurrence”.

It is difficult to precisely convert estimates of avoidable congestion costs into changes in GDP, of course. But the new Infrastructure Australia estimates do not even follow some simple, but important, rules of modelling.

First, they don’t make it easy for readers to see the basis for the assumptions used. Second, they don’t appear to have factored in costs as well as benefits. And third, in a situation where significant uncertainty surrounds the estimates, they haven’t published a range for the estimated impacts.

Getting transport projects right is critically important in cities that are already under pressure. Yet too many big infrastructure calls in Australia are based on misleading information or wafer-thin evidence. We need to do better.


The Conversation


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Budget policy check: do we need ribbon-cutting infrastructure for jobs and growth?


Hugh Batrouney, Transport Fellow, Grattan Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What’s driving Chinese infrastructure investment overseas and how can we make the most of it?


Shahar Hameiri, The University of Queensland

Chinese infrastructure investment in Australia has rarely left the headlines lately. It’s reported that telecommunications giant Huawei will likely be banned from building Australia’s 5G network on national security grounds. Hong Kong-based company CK Infrastructure’s bid to buy APA Group’s gas pipeline network is also proving controversial.

Scrutiny of the national security implications of infrastructure has been upgraded. The new Critical Infrastructure Centre is assisting the Foreign Investment Review Board in this. Though not made explicit, the main focus is China.




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Greater scrutiny of investment projects is welcome, especially if community and environmental concerns are also considered. However, Australia could benefit from the availability of Chinese infrastructure financing.

Australia’s north has significant infrastructure needs. And in the major Australian cities, public transport systems are inadequate, leading to ever-longer commuting times. China also possesses world-class expertise in high-speed rail, which could be harnessed to better connect cities on the eastern seaboard.

Given the state of relations with China and Australia’s pressing infrastructure needs, the Australian government must develop a clear strategy for Chinese infrastructure investment. Instead of passively scrutinising bids, the government should proactively identify worthwhile projects and engage Chinese counterparts to finance and implement them.




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Australia risks missing out on China’s One Belt One Road


Belt and Road isn’t just a political ploy

A proactive approach could benefit Australia because Chinese infrastructure investment is not as strategically directed as many assume. This is clear if we examine the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – the centrepiece of China’s global infrastructure financing spree.

The Australian government, on security officials’ advice, has not joined the BRI. However, Belt and Road is not a carefully planned “grand strategy”. It is largely driven by the diverse activities of state-owned enterprises competing for projects and financing.

President Xi Jinping has undoubtedly used the BRI to signal China’s rise to “great power” status. But its main drivers are domestic and commercial. At its core, the BRI is an effort to alleviate China’s industrial overcapacity problem in key sectors, such as steel, glass, cement and aluminium.

Overcapacity has worsened since the global financial crisis, as Beijing sought to maintain growth by encouraging an infrastructure construction boom. State-owned enterprises (SOEs) spearheaded this. After profitable domestic opportunities had dried up, international expansion became attractive, to keep SOEs working and to find more productive outlets for China’s huge foreign currency reserves.




Read more:
As its economy changes, China is starting to export its real estate ideas too


The BRI’s implementation has reflected competition, lobbying and compromises among ministries, provinces and SOEs. Its masterplan document – “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” – is a case in point. It contains 50 “priority areas”. These cover virtually every governmental and non-governmental activity, showing little actual prioritisation.

Early statements suggested a BRI focus on Central and Southeast Asia. But since 2015 the initiative has been formally opened to all countries. This was again due to intense lobbying from provinces, SOEs and some foreign governments. All are keen to get some of the action, suggesting little strategic direction.

The vague and loose Belt and Road plan has enabled considerable scope for interests within the Chinese party-state to use it for their own, economically motivated, agendas, with little consideration for Beijing’s wider diplomatic objectives. This has generated a rather chaotic, “bottom-up” process for selecting and funding projects.

Belt and Road project ideas usually emerge from state-owned enterprises’ in-country subsidiaries. After spotting an opportunity, they try to build support in the recipient government. Occasionally, this includes bribing officials. They also often seek to obtain the local Chinese embassy’s support to improve lobbying back home.

Once agreement with the recipient government is reached, the SOE or the recipient government applies for financing from China’s policy or commercial banks. The banks determine whether to extend credit after assessing repayment capacity. The central government’s involvement is typically limited to the National Development and Reform Commission’s formal approval.




Read more:
The Belt and Road Initiative: China’s vision for globalisation, Beijing-style


Australia still needs to manage the risks

Chinese infrastructure projects are not risk-free. The potential for misuse of key infrastructure to serve Chinese strategic agendas is clearly the Australian government’s foremost concern. But there are more immediate issues too.

Chinese banks’ lending standards are well below world “best practice”. They give limited consideration to social, environmental and labour protections when awarding financing to projects.




Read more:
China’s green planning for the world starts with infrastructure


Tough competition between Chinese companies means they have strong incentives to cut corners and promote projects that recipients do not need. The latter can be saddled with unnecessary infrastructure and potentially unsustainable debt. Furthermore, Chinese central agencies’ capacity to regulate SOEs’ offshore activities is weak, so they cannot be relied upon to manage these problems.

Closer scrutiny of investment proposals is, therefore, clearly necessary. So, too, is tight regulation of project implementation. Australian regulators should also ensure Chinese projects adequately resolve social, environmental and labour concerns.

The fragmented nature of Chinese investments provides opportunities, however, for selective engagement that could serve the wider public interest. This should form part of a clear Australian strategy towards China based on a nuanced analysis of both the threats and opportunities of this multifaceted relationship.


The Conversation


Read more:
Canada’s disturbing lack of vision on dealing with a rising China


Shahar Hameiri, Associate Professor of International Politics, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What was missing in Australia’s $1.9 billion infrastructure announcement


Virginia Barbour, Queensland University of Technology

When we think about infrastructure it’s most often about bridges or roads – or, as in this week’s federal government AU$1.9 billion National Research Infrastructure announcement, big science projects. These are large assets that can be seen and applied in a tangible way.

It’s not hard to get excited over money that will support imaging of the Earth, or the Atlas of Living Australia.

But important as these projects are, there’s a whole set of infrastructure that rarely gets mentioned or noticed: “soft” infrastructure. These are the services, policies or practices that keep academic research working and, now, open.

Soft infrastructure was not featured in this week’s announcement linked to budget 2018.




Read more:
Budget 2018: when scientists make their case effectively, politicians listen


Ignored infrastructure

An absence of attention paid to soft infrastructure isn’t just the case in Australia, it’s true globally. This is despite the fact that such infrastructure is core to running the hard infrastructure projects.

For example, the Open SSL software library – which is key to the security of most websites – has just a handful of paid individuals who work on it. It’s supported by fragile finances. That’s a pretty frightening thought. (There’s another issue in that researchers doing this work get no academic credit for their efforts, but that’s a topic for another time.)

There are other high profile, globally used, open science infrastructures that also exist hand to mouth. The Directory of Open Access journals which began at Lund University relies entirely on voluntary donations from supporting members and on occasional sponsorship.

Similarly, Sherpa Romeo – the open database of publishers’ policies on copyright and self-archiving – came out of projects at Nottingham and Loughborough Universities in the UK.

In some ways these projects’ high visibility is part of their problem. It’s assumed that they are already funded, so no-one takes responsibility for funding them themselves – the dilemma of collective action.




Read more:
Not just available, but also useful: we must keep pushing to improve open access to research


Supporting open science

Other even more nebulous types of soft infrastructure include the development and oversight of standards that support open science. One example of this is the need to ensure that the metadata (the essential descriptors that tell you for example where a sample that’s collected for research came from and when, or how it relates to a wider research project or publication) are consistent. Without consistency of metadata, searching for research, making it openly available or linking it together is much less efficient, if not impossible.

Of course there are practices in place at individual institutions as well as national organisations. The soon-to-be-combined organisations -Australian National Data Service, the National eResearch Collaboration Tools and Resources project and Research Data Services (ANDS-Nectar-RDS) – are supported by national infrastructure funding. These provide support for data-heavy research (including for example the adoption of FAIR – Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable standards for data).

But without coherent national funding and coordination, specifically for open science initiatives, we won’t get full value from the physical infrastructure just funded.




Read more:
How the insights of the Large Hadron Collider are being made open to everyone


What we need

What’s needed now? First, a specific recognition of the need for cash to support this open, soft infrastructure. There are a couple of models for this.

In an article last year it was suggested that libraries (but this could equally be funders – public or philanthropic) should be committing around 2.5% of their budget to support open initiatives. There are some international initiatives that are developing specific funding models – SCOSS for Open Science Services and NumFocus for software.

But funding on its own is not enough: we need a coordinated national approach to open scholarship – making research available for all to access through structures and tools that are themselves open and not proprietary.

Though there are groups that are actively pushing forward initiatives on open scholarship in Australia – such as the Australasian Open Access Strategy Group, the Council of Australian University Librarians, and the Learned Academies as well as the ARC and NHMRC who have open access policies – there is no one organisation with the responsibility to drive change across the sector. The end result is inadequate key infrastructure – for example, for interoperability between research output repositories.

We also need coherent policy. The government recognised a need for national and states policies on open access in its response to the 2016 Productivity Commission Inquiry on Intellectual Property, but as yet no policy has appeared.




Read more:
Universities spend millions on accessing results of publicly funded research


It’s reasonable to ask whether in the absence of a national body that’s responsible for developing and implementing an overall approach, what the success of a policy on its own would be. Again, there are international models that could be used.

Sweden has a Government Directive on Open Access, and a National Body for Coordinating Open Access chaired by the Vice-chancellor of Stockholm University.

The Netherlands has a National Plan for Open Science with wide engagement, supported by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. In that country, the Secretary of State, Sander Dekker, has been a key champion.

The EU has had a long commitment to open science, underscored recently by the appointment of a high-level envoy with specific responsibility for open science, Robert-Jan Smits.

Private interests might take over

Here’s the bottom line: national coordinated support for the soft infrastructure that supports open science (and thus the big tangible infrastructure projects announced) is not just a “nice to have”.

One way or another, this soft infrastructure will get built and adopted. If it’s not done in the national interest, for-profit companies will step into the vacuum.

We risk replicating the same issues we have now in academic publishing – which is in the hands of multi-billion dollar companies that report to their shareholders, not the public. It’s clear how well that is turning out – publishers and universities globally are in stand offs over the cost of publishing services, which continue to rise inexorably, year on year.


The Conversation


Read more:
Publisher pushback puts open access in peril


Virginia Barbour, Director, Australasian Open Access Strategy Group, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Budget policy check: do we need ribbon-cutting infrastructure for jobs and growth?


Hugh Batrouney, Grattan Institute

In this series – Budget policy checks – we look at the government’s justifications for policies likely to be in this year’s budget and measure them up against the evidence.

In this piece we look at the need for infrastructure projects.


We look set for another infrastructure budget: big new projects that will, we’re told, boost growth, create jobs and tackle the pressures of our booming population. For example, the Turnbull government has already pledged up to A$5 billion for a rail link from Melbourne Airport to its CBD.

Infrastructure can play an important role, but behind the rhetoric some fundamental investment principles are missing.

Are investing in infrastructure and economic growth a sort of virtuous circle that feed each other?

Through a stronger economy, you can also invest in important infrastructure that again drives stronger growth in our economy … but also delivers the infrastructure that busts the congestion in cities, that makes rural and regional roads safer.

– Treasurer Scott Morrison

Yes, sometimes infrastructure spending and economic growth form a virtuous circle. In new suburbs and rapidly growing cities, infrastructure is needed to connect people to jobs and that in turn drives economic activity.

But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking any spending is good spending. There are many examples where the opposite is more likely true: where poorly targeted infrastructure wastes resources and weakens economic growth.

If we want to identify the best projects, a good place to start is our biggest cities. Big cities have a productivity advantage because they match workers to jobs better and faster than smaller cities and towns. Transport infrastructure is key to this matchmaking.

But in many cases, the enormous costs of construction in big cities – acquiring land, disrupting traffic, and the physical challenge of constructing in densely developed places – often makes it hard to justify the incremental increases in accessibility that a project generates.

Instead, policies and projects targeting better use of existing infrastructure can have greater economic impacts. The trouble is, these projects usually don’t involve cutting a ribbon.

Changes to the way we set prices for the use of roads and public transport, for example, can help us get more out of the infrastructure we already have. Charging public transport users different amounts depending on the time of day they travel can reduce peak-period overcrowding on our trains. With much lower capital costs, policies like this often deliver a bigger bang for the buck than major new investments.

Are these road and rail projects the sort of infrastructure that supports growth?

Whether it’s the Tulla Rail or the M1 up in Queensland or indeed in my home city of Sydney around Western Sydney Rail from the airport and the road infrastructure that goes around that in particular, we are making important national investments in infrastructure that will support growth, bust congestion in our cities and make our transport – rural and regional roads – safer.

– Treasurer Scott Morrison

Infrastructure undeniably plays a role in supporting the economy. But not every project will add to the productivity of our economy.

On the face of it, the economics of airport rail in Melbourne look thin. Infrastructure Victoria has said upgrading airport bus services should be investigated first, because at A$50-100 million it’s a much cheaper way to tackle the same problem. It has also said that the rail line should be delivered within 15-30 years.

The perceived urgent need for airport rail in Melbourne may stem from the slow and unreliable travel to the airport over the past 18 months. This is a byproduct of the Tullamarine Freeway widening project, which is now almost complete. Responding to a short-term pressure with a multi-billion dollar investment – in the absence of a detailed business case – is a depressing example of poor policy-making.

And the Treasurer’s enthusiasm for the Western Sydney airport rail is also concerning, given that a recent state government study indicated the project wouldn’t be needed to cater for customers and workers at the airport until 2036, at the earliest. Infrastructure Australia has been clear that a rail corridor, running north-south through the airport site, needs to be preserved for a future rail line. But that is a long way from justifying billions of dollars of infrastructure that isn’t needed for nearly another 20 years.

Does Australia need infrastructure to create jobs?

Our national economic plan for jobs and growth has been getting results…A $75 billion national infrastructure investment plan that is building the runways, railways and roads Australia needs to remain competitive, and create jobs.

– Treasurer Scott Morrison

At certain points in the economic cycle, infrastructure spending can help create jobs. New projects create jobs for workers involved in planning, building and deploying each project, as well as for the suppliers of equipment and materials needed as inputs.

And in the longer term, the Treasurer is right to say that infrastructure is essential if our cities are to remain competitive.

But again, context is everything.

Infrastructure can put people to work when there is “slack” in the labour market – when there is unemployment or underemployment, in other words. But if there is little slack in the labour market, then the workers required to get a project off the ground will be drawn from other productive activities. In that case, there may be no boost to jobs or economic growth, because one activity is merely displacing another.

With national unemployment currently around 5.5%, there does appear to be some slack in the labour market right now. However, firms are now finding it more difficult to access the labour they want. And the slack doesn’t appear to be in the parts of the economy that would benefit most from new projects: as the RBA reports, the construction sector recently reached its highest share of total employment since the early 1900s.

What’s the verdict?

Eminent urban economist Ed Glaeser once said, “if you have a focus on jobs and macroeconomic effects, it leads to infrastructure in the wrong place”. Australia should focus on a project-by-project approach; that’s the only way we can be assured that investments represent the best possible use of available funds.

This means starting with some basics: the government should not commit to expensive new infrastructure projects until it has commissioned a detailed look at the economic impacts of the investments, and it has made public the results of that analysis.

The ConversationThat’s how infrastructure policy would be done in an ideal world. But sadly, in a pre-election budget, we can probably expect politics to triumph over policy, yet again.

Hugh Batrouney, Fellow, Grattan Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A closer look at business cases raises questions about ‘priority’ national infrastructure projects


Glen Searle, University of Sydney and Crystal Legacy, University of Melbourne

Infrastructure Australia’s latest infrastructure priority list has been criticised for being “too Sydney-centric” and for giving Melbourne’s East West Link, cancelled in 2014, “high priority” status. The cancelled Roe 8 project in Perth was removed from the list.

So how does a project get onto Infrastructure Australia’s list? This requires submission of a full business case, which then needs to be “positively assessed” to be given priority status.

But our research, yet to be published, has found these business cases leave out highly significant costs. This article looks at three prominent projects – the WestConnex and East West Link motorways in Sydney and Melbourne respectively, and Cross River Rail in Brisbane – to illustrate how business cases submitted to Infrastructure Australia do not follow its requirements in key respects. This casts serious doubt on the business cases used to justify major motorway projects, as well as on how priority projects are selected.


Read more: FOI reform needed in Victoria amid East West Link fallout

Read more: Roe 8 fails the tests of responsible 21st-century infrastructure planning


What do business cases assess?

Ensuring business cases are completed before investment decisions are finalised is critical to “good planning”. Part of Infrastructure Australia’s remit is to head off concerns that projects are committed to before business cases are fully evaluated. This can help minimise “optimism bias” and ensure investments deliver community benefit.




Read more:
WestConnex audit offers another $17b lesson in how not to fund infrastructure


But we must also examine what the business case is actually showing us. The main part of each business case is the cost-benefit analysis. This compares the money value of project benefits and project costs. Economically viable projects should have a benefit-to-cost ratio above 1:1.

Infrastructure Australia requires project business cases to consider non-monetised benefits and costs, including community impacts. These benefits and costs are required to be quantified in some other way, or at least described. The basis used to estimate “external costs” must also be provided.

The cost-benefit methodology requires any significant positive or negative impacts on third parties – externalities – to be included. Examples include air quality, carbon emissions, noise, biodiversity and climate adaptation.

Social impacts to be covered include equity or the distribution of benefits (which Infrastructure Australia says need to be identified since cost-benefit analysis does not explicitly take these into account), and affected local communities and other individuals/groups. The non-monetised benefit and cost categories listed as relevant are: social impacts, cultural impacts, visual amenity/landscape, biodiversity and heritage impacts.

In support of monetary estimates, proponents must “describe and provide supporting material that demonstrates how land use, population and employment projections are modelled”.

The guidelines stress that the supporting conditions for expected land use impacts will be in place – for instance, necessary infrastructure investment where densification is assumed. Factors that can hinder the realisation of such benefits (such as local opposition to increasing density) must also be included.

This process would seem to produce a rational prioritisation of national infrastructure projects. The problem is that the business cases submitted to Infrastructure Australia do not follow its requirements.

High-priority projects with problematic business cases

To illustrate this, we analysed the business cases of three projects designated as “high priority” for Commonwealth funding:

  • East West Link, to which the Commonwealth allocated A$1.5 billion before the new Victorian government cancelled the project

  • WestConnex, which has been allocated A$3.5 billion

  • Cross River Rail, which is yet to receive funding.

A key problem in these business cases is that significant project cost items have not been monetised. These include costs relating to environmental effects such as noise and visual amenity and to other impacts on businesses, households and property values.

For example, none of the three cases includes a valuation of the costs of lost business and disruption to household travel and amenity during construction. (This is a big issue with Sydney’s southeast light rail project.)

There is also no costing of the loss of property values along motorways, especially around exhaust emission vents. The East West Link and Cross River Rail business cases make some allowance for this by including the value of general changes in amenity from noise, urban landscape and visual amenity. None of these are costed in the WestConnex case.

Another significant omission relates to the costing of land use impacts. The WestConnex and East West Link business cases both forecast more, and longer, road trips across the network as a result of the projects.

The WestConnex scheme will increase vehicle kilometres by 600,000 per day and make outer suburbs more accessible relative to the inner city. The potential extra costs from greater sprawl are high, estimated at A$4.99 billion for Sydney over 25 years from 2011 if greenfield housing was 50% of new dwellings rather than 30%.

The opposite is the case for Cross River Rail. Increased higher-density development around rail stations would produce infrastructure savings, but the business case does not give these a value.

Furthermore, the valuation of changes in transport mode resulting from each project is inconsistent.

The Cross River Rail business case includes savings resulting from motorists switching from road to rail after the line is built.

The WestConnex project will have the reverse effect, with 45,000 public transport trips per day being switched to the motorway. But the business case does not put a value on the costs of this. These include bus and train revenue losses, or reduced service frequency and increased waiting time to reduce losses.

Debatable ‘wider economic benefits’

The most contentious business case component is wider economic benefits. These are productivity improvements arising from increased central city job density as a result of the projects improving access.

These benefits needed to be included to lift the East West Link benefit-cost ratio above one. But this is only achieved through sleight of hand – public transport improvements into central Melbourne are included as part of the full project cost. As the public transport component of the business case had low costs compared to its benefits, including these wider economic benefits was enough to push the overall ratio above 1.

Similar benefits are part of the WestConnex cost-benefit analysis. However, these benefits are to be achieved from extra car trips to the centre. This takes no account of the disincentives of road congestion and lack of parking.

Current central Sydney planning controls allow a maximum of one new parking space per 75 square metres of floor area for not-so-tall offices – or one space for about five new workers – and even fewer spaces relative to floor area for higher buildings. This means most increased job density will not come from people driving to work.

By contrast, the wider economic benefits of the Cross River Rail resulting from increased job density in central Brisbane are not valued for inclusion in the cost-benefit analysis.




Read more:
Brisbane’s Cross River Rail will feed the centre at the expense of people in the suburbs


Rethinking the business case

Our work points to several real concerns:

  • a lack of consistency in what is included in business cases
  • questions about how cases can be reasonably compared across projects
  • discretionary inclusion or exclusion of critical items that bias results in favour of projects.

The ConversationWe need more holistic and integrated analysis of projects. This will take into account not only the “nation-building” aspects – the jobs and growth projects might inspire – but also the disrupting and displacing effects they produce across transport modes, land uses and people’s experiences of the city.

Glen Searle, Honorary Associate Professor in Planning, University of Queensland and, University of Sydney and Crystal Legacy, Senior Lecturer in Urban Planning, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.