Category Archives: Infrastructure

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.

A Bridge to Sell

Unknown Recently at the Warren Centre (http://thewarrencentre.org.au/ip30-panel-investigates-the-infrastructure-governance-opportunity/) there was some commentary around the cost of duplicating Brisbane’s Gateway Motorway Bridge.  Namely, between the original and the duplicate, costs increased fivefold.  On the surface that would be a stunning thing.  However, when we consider 24 intervening years (1986-2010) between the costings for the two projects, we are looking at an annualised increase in costs of 6.9%.  This is still significant when inflation only increased 3.4%p.a. over the same period.  I know there are construction price indices around as well.  However, I wonder whether design and materials were significantly different, and the connecting road infrastructure was more challenging. That might explain some of the residual increase.  Also, the duplicate would have been constructed in a much tighter market for engineering and construction services.  Should we have bought the extra lanes way back in 1986 or would the opportunity cost have been too large?

NSW Northern Beaches Hospital Deal

One of the largest public health projects in NSW has been slowly releasing more and more information about the total cost of the project. Like some other public private partnership arrangements this project is a combination of capital investment and operating service payments.

The Northern Beaches Hospital project was belatedly revealed to the public to cost $2.14 billion cost, up from “over $1 billion” in December 2014. See: http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/nsw/revealed-the-real-2-billion-cost-of-privatised-northern-beaches-hospital-20150501-1mxgqd.html

A lot of information was shrouded in commercial secrecy and the Health Minister has indicated she did not get involved in the financing.

So let’s have a look at what the good taxpayers of NSW may be getting.

From public information, the hospital development itself will cost $600 million. The NSW government plans to chip in some $400 million in adjacent transport improvements. A big assumption is that this is actually delivered on schedule and budget.

That basically handles the capital investment side of the equation and may leave $1.14 billion for the hospital services NSW is purchasing up to 2038 from the consortium.

Let’s say the hospital is operational in 2018, so there is a 20 year service period. According to some reports, 488 public beds will be provided.

This means the average daily cost per bed – occupied or not – is around $320 over this period.

Across the NSW health system the average cost per occupied bed was around $1,400 per night in 2012-13, based on information given to the NSW Auditor General.

See: http://www.audit.nsw.gov.au/ArticleDocuments/358/10_Managing_Length_of_Stay_Hospital_Readmission_Appendix_Three.pdf.aspx?Embed=Y

So this looks like it might actually be a good deal even at low occupancy rates. But since we do not know the basis of the service payments we simply cannot be sure.  The consortium get to make some extra cash on the side by selling private services through the site.

At about this point I can hear a lot of health economists scream.

So let’s recognise there is a lot of detailed, good work being done by the Independent Hospital Pricing Authority (see: http://www.ihpa.gov.au/internet/ihpa/publishing.nsf) that is putting evidence-based price signals into the hospital funding system, allowing funding arrangements to move from block grants to activity-based funding payments.

Over time this should help improve the efficiency of our hospital systems.