Significance of O&M in Infrastructure

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Installation of new infrastructure assets creates streams of services and improvements to existing services for users. Benefits accrue to these uses as well as a wider set of stakeholders. Maintaining the service potential is a critical element in ensuring that value for money is achieved from the initial capital investment.

However, many governments and asset managers are under significant pressure to trim maintenance budgets and scrimp on operating costs. In some contexts, this emerges as an extreme build-neglect-build scenario. Many Pacific Island nations experience this, as do a number of smaller Australian local government authorities. The full lifecycle cost of infrastructure assets is not factored into the budget planning processes of these organisations. Similarly, many private sector operators of infrastructure have commercial and financial incentives to focus on next quarter financial performance rather than long-term service provision from these assets.

The back end of infrastructure is seen as much less interesting, but it is where all the benefits are generated. So approaches to operating and maintaining these infrastructure assets is as equally critical as the planning and investment decisions to deliver them.

Two broad maintenance strategies are predictive maintenance and condition based maintenance. Predictive maintenance is like regular scheduled servicing based on the design performance of an infrastructure asset. It is less costly to implement but also less likely to match the actual performance of the asset. Condition based maintenance requires the collection of data and information about the actual performance of the asset and provision of a tailored asset maintenance response.

The approaches set up an economic challenge. Should an infrastructure manager simply maintain its assets according to schedule and only collect data and information on condition at the times of regularly scheduled servicing? Or should some initial data costs be incurred to change and adapt design-based, predictive maintenance? Decisions to underfund reasonable maintenance activities need to be made with good information and in an appropriate strategic context.

So it depends. In one sector, for example, the response is clear but not clear-cut. Analysis of wind turbine maintenance to address gearbox, generator and blade failure scenarios shows that for small wind turbines, predictive maintenance is more cost effective than condition based maintenance. Condition based strategies were based on an array of sensor data (optical, oil, vibration and temperature). However, for larger turbines, condition based maintenance where there is a high expected gearbox failure rate is a much better approach. In that instance, the cost of collecting additional data and information enables timelier and more appropriate servicing of the turbines.

For these reasons, infrastructure owners and managers need to ensure there are effective asset management and maintenance policies included in their strategic asset management frameworks. It is not enough to supply the assets, as only the services from them will be able to generate the full suite of expected benefits. This can only be achieved when the design potential of these assets is realised over time.

Infrastructure Asset Transactions

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Economic infrastructure provides fundamental services to economies. Typically, this type of infrastructure provides electricity, water and gas to industry, businesses and large institutions, community organisations and households. It also assists in providing transport, freight and logistics services.  In the information age, access to low-cost, high-speed broadband facilitates a range of e-services.

The quality, cost, and access to these services affect the productivity of an economy, the efficiency with which goods and services are both produced and consumed, and the equity between different sections of society.

The physical aspects that underpin these services have a range of characteristics that separate these services from everyday goods and services delivered through competitive markets. Service provision can be characterized by a large, up-front capital investment. Installation of an asset can create a local demand response and establish a natural monopoly. Economic arguments for duplication of the asset to stimulate competition are usually weak.

Also, there is usually a long-term stream of benefits that are generally small relative to the capital investment. In some cases, user benefits alone are insufficient to justify the construction and operation of economic infrastructure. Wider benefits can accrue to society, and some societal costs can be avoided.

These assets contain a high level of optionality. Unlike purchasing a retail good, it is possible to develop the asset in phases or stages, with options to scale up or down or abandon operations. In other cases, once the decision to build has been made and construction started, it is tough to change the project scale or scope.

These factors contribute to determining how these assets can be funded as well as who should potentially own and control them.

The classic argument for government provision of infrastructure assets, and consequently related services, concerns market failure. That is, the operation of the private market leads to under or over provision of services from these assets. As a result, mismatch of supply and demand reduces economic value in the economy. In the case of under provision, supply is constrained and the level of inputs is less than required to meet the demand. As infrastructure services are critical inputs into other sectors of the economy, economic efficiency is impeded. The productive potential of the economy is not fully realized and potential economic growth is stymied.

Where there are significant externalities, these are not captured in the price mechanism, where price signals between buyers and sellers determine the optimal level of production and consumption.

This affects the funding and revenue models for infrastructure assets. Consequently, asset transactions can become very complicated.

Where benefits largely accrue to users, and use of infrastructure services can be individually identified, it is possible to develop cost reflective charging regimes. The funding model, without recourse to other sources than user charges, is only limited by extant economic regulation where this is imposed on assets with strong monopolistic characteristics. This river of user revenue forms the basis of the transaction value, and also the initial assessment of feasibility.

It is not without significant risk because of the long period evaluation, accompanied by the risk around maintaining fixed parameter assumptions over that timeframe. Construction cost blow outs, poor demand forecasts, changes in consumer preferences, shifts in relative related prices for products and services that are substitutes or complements can all combine to turn a positive investment into a financial fiasco.

This is before considering the situations where direct asset-related revenue streams cannot support the creation and operation of economic infrastructure.

An infrastructure asset that cannot be funded from its future stream of user revenues requires additional funding contributions. The private sector will not fund infrastructure without a financial return. It is important to distinguish from an economic return.

Economic infrastructure may produce a return to an economy but will not be provided by the private sector if the private sector cannot get a return on its investment. In other words, the return to the economy is contrasted with the return to the balance sheet of a private investor.

Given the extraordinary imbalance in costs and benefits in any particular period over the life of an infrastructure asset, some form of financial intermediation is necessary. It is important to see this as a financial service rather than a private sector investment. This ensures that the cash flows needed to build, operate and maintain the economic infrastructure asset are provided as and when they are required.

Similarly, change of economic control of an infrastructure asset occurs at a specific point in time – a transaction date. The control is exchanged for a specific valuation of the asset.

As an example, early stage infrastructure development is heavily exposed to construction risk and unproven demand. In contrasts, mid-life infrastructure assets have mature demand profiles and risks associated with construction are better known. Late life assets face potential increases in maintenance and rehabilitation costs, as well as changes in user demand and the impact of technology.

Having a very clear perspective on the inherent economic and financial values of an economic infrastructure asset is very important. These valuations are combinations of knowledge at a point in time. It is where a very strong risk assessment is needed as well as an understanding of the relevance of that point in time.

Education Infrastructure

Recently I was up in Papua New Guinea for work. The PNG government has an ambitious policy of free primary school education. This requires more education infrastructure right across the country.  I had an opportunity to look at how education infrastructure is being improved through an Australian government project with PNG. The following photos show how classroom conditions have changed through some simple design measures.  Use of the old classrooms only stopped a couple of months ago.

 

The new school buildings were erected to Australian construction standards. The design featured higher ceilings to improve air flow, fans, and electrical lighting. Blocks of four classrooms and teachers prep rooms were constructed using Besser block. This made better use of the site.  Also, ablution blocks at some schools were upgraded, which has a significant positive impact on female participation in education.

These clean, functional classrooms provide a much better learning environment for students. This is infrastructure that should last a long time in a very challenging environment.

Infrastructure Complexity

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Why does delivering infrastructure have to be so complex on so many different levels? It seems hard to correctly identify infrastructure, assess the need for services from those assets, discern which infrastructure to maintain, rehabilitate, replace or build new. Further, there are strong disagreements at the political level, between infrastructure agencies and, within infrastructure agencies, between different asset managers.

Complexity arises from the involvement of a broad array of participants in the provision of infrastructure assets, as well as the managers of the services provided from those assets.

It also arises from complex streams of benefits. In addition to benefits accruing to consumers of infrastructure services, there are often significant streams of benefits that are positive externalities. Wider benefits to society from improved health services, better access to education, cleaner water supplies, stable supply of electricity, and improvements to travel time and quality of the trip. A healthier workforce improves productivity. A more educated populace can generate higher disposable incomes. Purer water supplies enhance public health. Stable electricity supplies reduce business interruptions. Improved transport systems make labour markets function better and increase intra and inter city productivity. The benefits are multifaceted and often hard to quantify on cost-benefit analyses.

On the supply side, it is often too easy to overlook the range of solutions that are on offer. After a need has been identified, solutions could well include non-built options. This may involve active demand management, improving utilization and output of existing assets, repairing and rehabilitating existing infrastructure, changing the infrastructure asset operating environment to foster demand for alternatives.

The options analysis needs to be undertaken at the output/outcome level, rather than at the input/resource level. That is where actual economic value can be identified. To do otherwise creates the risk of estimating the cost of sub-optimal options.

Complexity also arises in terms of finding the financial resources to commission and operate infrastructure assets. Also, implementation through procurement and construction may have complexity.

Large, nationally significant infrastructure contains a lot of first pass risks. Getting the right scale and scope of infrastructure to match the most likely demand profile requires a lot of analysis.

Many infrastructure assets contain hiding optionality benefits. The ability to set the ultimate scale and scope, as well as the possible staging to achieve that is a significant real asset option. At the outset, a lot of choices can be made that close off options later on. Least cost solutions are not necessarily the best solutions where service quality between options can vary.

So what gets bought and how it gets built becomes critical.

Ultimately financial resources are committed. This is because small annual benefits are often realized over long periods. This is in contrast to large initial construction costs. Construction costs and some measure of operating expenses have to be funded. User charges do not always cover these costs. Finance addresses the imbalance of cash flows inherent in infrastructure. Ultimately, infrastructure must be paid for either by users or taxpayers. There is a significant range of public and private financing mechanisms. Financing choices are complex and can carry different risk profiles. This can affect asset valuation, as well as commercial risks around viability.

These are all significant touch points highlighting infrastructure complexity. They warrant detailed consideration and investigation in each infrastructure project.

Investing in Infrastructure

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It is easy to think of investing in infrastructure as something that needs to be done on a routine basis – repairing power stations that supply our electricity or maintaining rail lines that carry our commuters and freight. This real foundation of our economy and society should be prudently addressed in a routine and methodical way, free from political and ideological agendas. Close to the operational level, asset management strategies address this.

At the same time, investing in infrastructure is anything but routine. It is a platform in which we determine the future competitiveness of our country, much the same as any other state. It also determines the extent to which we can maintain and enhance an open and inclusive society, one that also shapes long-term responses to climate change.

Infrastructure investment is a long-term investment to secure that future capacity and productivity in our economy. It provides a demand for highly skilled jobs in the professional service sectors, driving future employment growth.

While it can provide short-term stimulus through the installation and commissioning of capital assets, the long-term benefits are far more significant. The Depression-era stimulus from constructing the Sydney Harbour Bridge has been far outweighed by the benefits from the annual flood of traffic traversing the bridge over decades. Emphasis on the short-term stimulus from consuming resources to construct infrastructure misses the point.  These projects are justified only on the basis of the long-term streams of benefits they can generate.

Infrastructure investment needs to expand a nation’s economic frontier – it lifts potential constraints on future economic growth. In the past Australia has benefited from the development of its road and rail networks, the creation of terminals (airports and seaports) and the development of a copper-based telecommunications system. Our future points to benefits accruing from fast fibre optic broadband, carbon reducing power investments and new high-speed rail technologies.

Australia has been facing a challenge to the core model for funding public infrastructure for a long time. The use of the taxation system to generate funds for public investment will not be sufficient to meet all of the infrastructure investments we require. We cannot do it out of our government budgets. It was not enough in the past either, and we imported foreign capital in the form of sovereign loans.

The Australian economy was simply not large enough in the past to fund the infrastructure investments that underpinned the economic growth we have achieved and the living standards we enjoy.

The nature of our infrastructure investments and what constitutes economic infrastructure have changed over time. Historically we have looked to the physical capital side of the economic growth equation, with less emphasis on the human capital side.

We need a new bipartisan consensus that effectively decouples infrastructure from political and budget cycles, to drive investment in the public interest. Emerging governance arrangements at the federal and state levels are showing promise but remain captured by legislative, budget and bureaucratic cycles.  They are still in their early stages of maturity in the Australian federal system of government.

A new commitment to investment is required that explicitly learns the lessons from past failures, avoids the ghosts of white elephants (the lonely tunnels, quiet dams, and bridges to nowhere) and addresses the pressing demands for the infrastructure services that support a modern 21st-century economy.  We need to be honest about past mistakes, in order to avoid them in the future.

We need investment in infrastructure that does the following:

  • repairs and rehabilitates our stock of existing infrastructure assets to continue producing existing streams of services that our citizens demand
  • expands the capacity of our economy by growing our infrastructure asset base with newer, smarter investments that are more productive in supplying services, lowering input costs
  • improves the productivity or our economy by investing in new types of infrastructure technology, enabling new kinds of infrastructure services enabling improvements to other sectors of the economy
  • enhances human capital with savvy health and education infrastructure investments that make our people smarter and healthier, improve the productivity of our economy and improve the quality of life for all.

These investments will position Australia to be at the front end of continuing global technological revolutions, set us on a lower carbon trajectory and expand the frontier of economic possibilities for the economy.

Rather than run down our current assets we must renew, reinvigorate and expand them as prudent custodians for future generations. These investments will be the backbone on which our future prosperity will stand.

Value Uplift and Capture

money_bridgeValue capture and uplift associated with infrastructure projects are often discussed but not well understood. This is because the issue sits at the crossroads of competing public and private interests, as well as institutional imperatives of project proponents.

From an economic perspective, it is a method of generating funds from economic rents – unearned private benefits from public investments – to deliver infrastructure projects. In the Australian context it is increasingly heralded as a potential new source of investment funds. However aspects of this approach have been used in both the US and the UK.

While there are over one hundred studies on value uplift around transport modes, impacts of other infrastructure types remain less well understood.

The Bureau of Transport, Infrastructure and Regional Economics has identified a range of factors assessing land value uplift challenging:

  • separating factors driving uplift to identify the infrastructure impact;
  • sampling errors in the estimation of land prices;
  • determining the catchment for beneficiaries / the project area of influence; and
  • isolating value uplift from network effects.

In essence, value uplift is where value flows from an infrastructure network are capitalised into land values. This is often observed regarding transport networks.

For the reasons outlined above, identifying value uplift is difficult in terms of identifying both who benefits and at what value. It is also why it has not been widely used to fund public infrastructure. However, there are two factors driving consideration of value capture funding:

  • economic rents accrue to landholders benefiting from economic infrastructure – in effect private, unearned returns from public investment in public assets – these are above and beyond use benefits and raises a critical equity issue; and
  • use revenues, particularly from public transport investments, are insufficient to fund infrastructure expenditures and are often complemented with significant subsidies from the public purse – value capture is seen as an alternative to increasing the general level of taxation revenue.

Overseas experience provides some guide to the types of value capture approaches, and each approach has its own pros and cons:

  • tax inventive funding – hypothecated value uplift based on an expected increase in property tax revenue. Commonly, a government issues a bond, effectively guaranteeing a return that matches the expected value uplift increment. The value at risk, however, remains with the government issuer.  This is one of the reasons most government treasuries oppose issuing these bonds – there is no transfer of financial risk associated with the value uplift increment.
  • betterment taxes – land owners thought to be direct beneficiaries of an infrastructure development – but not necessarily users themselves – pay a levy. The levey is typivally on the unimproved capital value of the land. A key challenge with this approach is achieving a correct attribution of the increase in land value from the provision of the infrastructure and related services.
  • transaction taxes – typically levied on property transfers. In this case, some of the property value increase attributed to the provision of publicly funded infrastructure will be collected by these taxes. However, this attribution is again difficult to to assess.
  • joint development – usually where a licence or concession is given to a private agency to develop surrounding land in exchange for delivering economic infrastructure and services. This is a significant model for railway development, and is currently in use for heavy rail in Asian countries.

While a range of estimation problems have been identified above, network architecture remains the most significant factor. Hierarchy, connections and density influence this. While the literature on network architecture largely focuses on transport infrastructure, specifically road and rail assets, further analysis is needed of other linear infrastructure (i.e. water, electricity and gas).

Two broad solutions emerge: either a more to a more general land tax; or further detailed investigation of each specific infrastructure project. The important point is to adopt an approach that minimises market distortions and promotes economic efficiency.

Improving Your Chances of Winning a Luxury Car

In helping people and organisations figure out the odds and make smarter infrastructure decisions, sometimes the right course of action may actually seem counterintuitive.

An example of this is the Monty Hall Paradox.

Suppose you are participating in a game show where the prize – say a luxury car – is behind one of three closed doors.  Can you improve your odds of winning the car by switching doors after the host shows you what is behind one of the other doors?

Of course you can.

I have attached a little PowerPoint that explains why and in what context.  See:

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It can be hard to recognise when additional, relevant information should prompt us to change course.