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Tim Williams: Before we spend on infrastructure ask the right questions

Photograph of a roadblock

OPINION: Governments are finally recognising that infrastructure projects must deliver on their promises and play a positive role in the way we shape our cities.


I’ve had a career-long interest in infrastructure appraisal, looking at what infrastructure is needed and why.

My interest has been both academic and practical. In the former sense I have attempted in Australia and the UK to promote a dialogue about what kind of methodologies and evidence are required to ensure a more scientific or objective basis for infrastructure appraisal.

This academic interest was, of course, spurred by practical experience of attempting to win infrastructure projects within appraisal systems that often seemed subjective and based on questionable evidence or criteria.

I have been party to successful attempts to secure infrastructure project approval but they have often required that the criteria of an appraisal system be set aside, replaced with a mixture of better evidence and better politics.

My success made me suspicious of the objectivity of the system and convinced of the need for reform.

Infrastructure business cases and the games played to fit the facts to a business case also made me cynical. For example, I’ve seen many business cases for road projects that claim benefits/costs ratios above 1:1, some as high as 3:1, which rely on spurious travel time reduction claims that never transpire.

We have all seen business cases for new roads or road widening that promise reduced congestion times only to discover that after a very short period of time, the congestion levels and travel times returned to what they were before the changes.

Failure to deliver

The case is then made to widen that road again – and so on.

The M25 is a famous UK example. It was meant to relieve congestion over decades but reached traffic capacity on day one.

In Sydney, traffic on Sydney’s notoriously congested key arterial, Parramatta Road, was meant to be relieved by a controversial $12 billion tolled motorway scheme known as WestConnex. In reality, all it’s done is increase the number of drivers using this corridor.

Another recent example is the 405 Freeway in West Los Angeles where, despite a $US1 billion widening project to improve traffic along a 16-km stretch of road, traffic is now worse in the Sepulveda Pass than it was when construction was completed several years ago. I am sure the business case promised the opposite.

The problem is that business cases are promoted within governments by  departments that don’t do proper non-modal options appraisals, don’t base them on solving the right problems, don’t use the right criteria and don’t check later to see if the project delivered the business case promises.

To my surprise, the UK has been improving its appraisal methodology and some of its tools and approaches – the Treasury Green Book on Appraisal and the requirement that road projects must make more allowance for inducing demand rather than just claiming congestion reduction – are best in class and beginning to be adopted internationally.

Wrong questions asked

However, even in the UK, according to the Highways Agency (which to be fair, is reviewing the performance of road projects against claimed benefits), only a minority of projects come within 15 per cent of reaching travel-time targets (which can make up over 80 per cent of the benefits claimed in the business case).

To avoid some of these problems, it helps if there is a single transport authority to handle such projects. It also helps to have the right appraisal framework and criteria for success.

There has been a lack of land-use and transport integration at the heart of infrastructure appraisal. Instead of asking how a road project can help reduce road congestion – and getting the wrong answer to the wrong question – we should be asking how to grow cities and look for the best transport approach to support urban planning objectives.

We have been over-valuing outcomes that don’t eventuate,  and under-valuing land-use transformation and value-uplift.

We also tend to ignore evidence from history. For example, the UK Treasury opposed the Channel Tunnel Rail Link including opposing a version running on the Stratford alignment into Kings Cross Station, because on classic travel time reduction justifications the Waterloo route cut more time off the journey to Paris.

But without the Link going via Stratford  there would have been no renewal of Stratford, no renewal of Kings Cross and no Olympics. Treasury’s decision to oppose the Jubilee Line Extension to Canary Wharf also proved wrong when the line’s construction helped create 110,000 jobs.

The good news is that there is increasing emphasis from various Australian state governments on the importance of place and place-making, and a requirement that infrastructure have a positive impact on both of them.

In NSW, for example, place-based appraisal is beginning to be stressed.

Wider economic benefits

Another piece of good news is that I’ve just realised that a recent UK Department for Transport (DfT) consultation on appraisal and modelling asked a really radical question of international significance: what are the implications for appraisal of transformational change and what tools, if any, do we have to do the job?

The UK led the charge on recognising wider economic benefits (WebTAG) but transformational change is a wider concept. WebTAG works well for projects that induce marginal changes to an established system but not so well when the system itself is being changed, to quote John Swanson of global cybersecurity advisory firm, SDG.

When the performance of a city is to be protected or enhanced something more fundamental than WebTAG is required – as now seems recognised by the DfT in the UK.

Some of us have previously called this kind of change city-shaping – which is linked to but bigger than urban regeneration. 

I mention this because the DfT’s shift to transformational change sounds like providing new impetus for those of us historically involved in urban regeneration. It could help re-ignite the urban renaissance in the UK that stalled on the eve of the global financial crisis in 2007.

With the right approach to our cities, we just could see more of that kind of change in Australia.

Tim Williams is a regular contributor to The Fifth Estate. He is head of cities and urban renewal at Arup and adjunct professor at Western Sydney University.


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