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Fostering public confidence in infrastructure investment

1 Apr 2021, by Amy Sarcevic

Large scale infrastructure projects have always attracted their fair share of scrutiny, but never more so than in recent years. With metropolitan projects now scaling tens of billions of dollars, comes equally sizeable pressure to deliver value for money to the taxpayer.

Although public perceptions towards completed projects are usually favourable, early phase announcements are frequently met with controversy – particularly when delays or cost overruns occur.

Last year, Sydney’s metro rail project drew widespread backlash, after it incurred a cost blowout of $3 billion, was subject to a Parliamentary Inquiry and pressured to cease delivery for part of the line. This is despite the significant economic and social benefits the completed railway was forecast to bring.

With the government’s recent fiscal constraints, this pressure is set to amplify. Large scale projects have become an increasingly easy target for criticism, whilst arguments for non-infrastructure solutions – like better land use planning – have grown louder.

Maintaining social license

Simon Draper, CEO of Infrastructure NSW believes there is a simple way to increase public confidence in the delivery of large scale infrastructure projects. In late 2020 his agency issued Timely Information on Infrastructure Projects – guidelines for the NSW Government on how (and when) to make infrastructure announcements. These guidelines aim to ensure reliable information is provided to the community about the delivery and cost of major projects, at the right time.

A key recommendation is to share details about the budget and timelines incrementally, with full budget and completion dates communicated in later project phases, when they are reliably known.

“Historically, budget and timeframes are disclosed during the first major announcement of a new project by government – and usually quite early on, during the planning phase,” said Mr. Draper ahead of the SMH Infrastructure Summit.

“Often though, these announcements are made prior to the detailed investigation of geotechnical circumstances, design solutions and planning conditions. This usually comes much later, resulting in public disappointment when initial estimates are not met.”

Meanwhile, pressure to deliver a project within an unrealistic budget and timeframe can cause operators to make compromises that aren’t in the public interest.

“When you are working with a premature, publicly announced budget, it puts a lot of pressure on the people working to deliver the project. Sometimes they are met with unforeseen geotechnical difficulties, but shy away from design options that will improve outcomes for the community, for fear of threatening the project deadline,” Mr. Draper said.

Houston we have a problem

The multibillion dollar WestConnex project in Sydney offers a high definition example of why announcing cost and timelines in this way is warranted. It encountered a series of engineering challenges when integrating its three separately delivered tunnels, according to Director of Operations and Integration, James Holbrook.

Construction work was ambitious from the outset – involving the excavation of some of the largest sections of road tunnel ever seen in Australia (20 meters wide and with junction caverns that spanned 30 meters). Each section was combined with a highly complex network of shafts and tunnels, required for the motorway ventilation.

An already difficult task was made more complicated by the geotechnical conditions associated with crossing palaeo-channels (deep soil sediments) and the nearby Cooks River. Geotechnical site investigations undertaken by the D&C contractor identified ground conditions that were significantly more challenging than anticipated.

This included bedding features and fault zones that would create significant water inflow, into the proposed tunnels. These challenges were relatively unique for Sydney, which is known for its good tunnelling conditions. Every time a problem area was hit, it had the potential to impact the cost and duration of the project.

The result of these setbacks is, often, significant public backlash and pressure to abort or rethink the project.

A better way forward

Instead of announcing cost and timeframe estimates before geotechnical conditions and scope requirements are properly understood, Mr. Draper recommends sharing these details later on, in the design and procurement phases. This – and other recommendations that form the guide – has been accepted by the NSW Government.

“I am not saying that governments should not fill the community in, but rather that disclosing this information is a more staggered process. You can regularly communicate with the public as you design the project and investigate the science and arrangements. There is no point making valiant predictions early on if they are ultimately not met. This damages public confidence and can lead to poor project outcomes,” he said.

Countering suggestions that this approach will render state governments non-accountable for poor use of taxpayer spending, Mr. Draper said: “There will always be a pressure to keep costs down. That pressure is inherent in government from our own budgetary constraints, as well the Fiscal Responsibility Act.”

With a NSW Government infrastructure pipeline of $107 billion – and projects increasing in size and complexity – Mr. Draper said the time to rethink public communication is now.

“As we tap into more brownfield areas with a lot of historical occupation and various unknowns in terms of contamination and utilities, the way we go to market and secure contracts will get more complex. It’s important we take measures to ensure that public confidence in these endeavours remains high,” he concluded.

Simon Draper will talk more about Infrastructure NSW’s role in fostering public confidence in infrastructure delivery at the forthcoming Sydney Morning Herald Infrastructure Summit.

Learn more and book your place.

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