Infrastructure needs science, so who put the politicians in charge?

Australians are addicted to the political theatre surrounding infrastructure investment. Tracey Nearmy/AAP

The recent productivity commission report into public infrastructure left the most important policy question unasked, namely: if there were better ways for planning and building transport infrastructure, would anyone actually be interested?

Australians have become addicted to the political theatre that surrounds transport and planning. By contrast, successful jurisdictions overseas have placed infrastructure into a condition of mundane, plodding progress.

To do this, they’ve taken infrastructure planning and financing out of the hands of politicians by-and-large, and have never looked back.

Lessons from Germany

There are two major paths to infrastructure, transport and planning success. One is the “technocratic” route embodied in Germany. The other is the “checks and balances” pathway exemplified in the United States.

German politicians tend to be highly educated. As such, they have long recognised that transport infrastructure is a specialised field, largely beyond the reach of detailed understanding for anyone without high levels of training and skill.

It’s not exactly clear when the German-speaking countries (or Scandinavia for that matter) turned onto their current pathway of transport success. But the “problems” of car dependency were being recognised as early as the mid 1960s.

Rather than building roads and parking only, the Germans switched to a heavily engineered but essentially “balanced” transport approach. Rail and integrated public transport were to play a key role in urban and regional travel.

The Germans began to see car dependency and transport as “scientific” challenges that were mostly solvable through the application of observational method. They invested in research, training and technical capacity - across the gamut of engineering, design, policy, economics and operations.

Transport plans were handed over during the 1970s and 1980s to this new group of transport scientists, who were also tasked with tricky issues such as project financing and optimised ticket pricing.

Much of the high-quality transit infrastructure we see today in German cities is not a “legacy” – but was built largely during the last 10-20 years. The technocratic approach has also been adopted in places like Japan and Singapore.

Keeping the politics out of it

The United States presents a less clear-cut version of transport success, but they have made one major advance. The Americans simply get the best out of their limited financial resources with a system of checks and balances that regulates the role of politics in transport decisions.

The US emphasises competitive grants, along with openness and transparency around infrastructure funding requests. Government officials are held to a much more stringent set of guidelines (legally speaking) for their conduct in the expenditure of public funds.

The results in advanced locations like the San Francisco Bay Area have included a marked separation of politicians from hands-on involvement in pet projects. Politicians tend to set the headline figure for annual funding, which is then mobilised by a fundamentally more technocratic and accountable bureaucracy.

The recent move by Denis Napthine in Victoria to “re-shape” the long-planned and well supported central city metro corridor with the stroke of his own inexpert pen would be simply unthinkable in the US.

So would Victorian opposition leader Daniel Andrew’s less-than-half-baked move to spend billions on road-rail grade separations without so much as a preliminary study.

The Germans would know that projects such as Melbourne’s metro tunnel need to be planned properly – through the classic “comparison of alternatives” for routes, tunnel alignments, and station locations.

They would expect two or three alternative corridors to be tabled, and then have their benefits and costs, and their pros and cons clearly listed.

Once that crucial information has been tabled openly, we can let politicians make the final call on major projects - but we can also judge the intelligence of their decisions.

The fact that Victoria has come so far into such a large project without any clear comparison of route alternatives suggests a fundamental breakdown in the planning and pre-engineering process.

The fact that state and federal politicians play so fast and loose with public money suggests we need to radically refine our legal frameworks. We need a substantive separation between infrastructure decisions and politics.

I often raise these options, but people generally respond that due process and technical skill just sounds too “boring”. But perhaps that’s the point.