“It is important to invest in infrastructure, but we have to make the right choices on projects, as part of a broader economic growth strategy,” Treasurer Scott Morrison said recently during his budget address.
We couldn’t agree more.
When it comes to infrastructure spending, our choices must be based on delivering value for money to the taxpayer.
But that means measuring the success of projects across a wide range of metrics. Economic growth is just one of them.
The Australian Government has been talking up its $75 billion of funding for infrastructure over the next 10 years. The purchasing power created through this new infrastructure investment represents a rare opportunity to capture a broad range of benefits.
This is about more than how many jobs a project creates during construction, or even how many people will ride on the trains afterward. We need to challenge ourselves to ask: How does it influence housing affordability and social inclusion? How does it reduce rates of obesity and heart disease? How does it help communities build resilience to withstand climate shocks?
Careful planning and consultation are required to ensure we capture these benefits. We need to consider now what processes we are putting in place to ensure we can measure and communicate that these broader outcomes are achieved for our communities in the longer-term.
What we’ve learnt from infrastructure investment over the last decade is clear. When we haven’t planned well, and when we haven’t engaged our communities, we haven’t gotten good outcomes.
Taxpayers expect that mega projects will be well thought out, with economic, social and environmental outcomes clearly articulated. Last November, Infrastructure Victoria released the Moving from Evaluation to Valuation report, which outlines that agencies do have the tools to look beyond ribbon-cutting and bold statements to deliver for communities.
The reason mega infrastructure projects get caught in politics is because they are planned or announced at the last minute and there is no narrative that clearly communicates the benefits to the communities that are most affected. When something is well-planned, and when the community is engaged in the transformational journey, they tend to proceed. But when they are badly planned on the eve of an election, they can fall apart.
These are the lessons we can learn as the Australian Government’s $10 billion urban rail promise, also outlined in the budget, is delivered. Investments in new rail infrastructure to move both people and freight are essential components of liveable, productive cities, reducing congestion and driving urban renewal.
Morrison has promised that a $200 million investment in 2019 will be ramped up to $400 million the year after. But the remaining funding will be in the years ahead of budget forecasts.
To ensure this later funding is realised across the vagaries of budget and election cycles, we need to start building a sustainable business case now for these projects, and to look at how we can engage meaningfully with communities to deliver better outcomes in the long term. And that’s why third party certification like Green Star, which guides the planning and engagement processes, are essential.
Take the five Green Star-rated stations built or upgraded as part of the $3.9 billion Regional Rail Link project in Victoria, for example. We worked with the authority to develop a ground-breaking custom rating tool to guide the sustainable design and construction of railway stations.
As a result, the upgrades to Footscray, West Footscray and Sunshine railway stations and the new railway stations in Wyndham Vale and Tarneit all received 4 Star Green Star certification.
Extensive natural light reduces the train stations’ reliance on electric lighting, while more than 100 solar panels provide power and heat water for each station. Energy-efficient LED lighting in car parks, forecourts, uncovered patron areas, and many internal areas, improve safety.
Each train station uses energy and water meters to monitor consumption. Water-efficient taps, urinals and toilets reduce the reliance on potable water, while a rainwater harvesting system collects rainwater run-off from roofs which is used to flush station toilets and wash platforms.
The sustainable outcomes achieved through these five projects are truly impressive. West Footscray railway station, for example, produces 40 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions than a standard station design and consumes 60 per cent less water.
These train stations showcase leading-edge sustainable design – and the people of Victoria have independent, third-party proof that their community assets are efficient and future-proofed.
Since this project, we’ve further refined our approach and are now working with the Melbourne Metro Rail Authority (MMRA) on the first Green Star ratings for underground railway stations. This will deliver five underground stations, including two new CBD-based stations that link directly to Flinders Street and Melbourne Central stations.
It will never be possible to take the politics out of infrastructure decisions, nor should we necessarily want to. Decisions to invest taxpayer dollars are rightly made by our elected representatives. Emerging from the politics of budget surpluses and deficits, the recent distinction made by Treasurer Morrison, reporting infrastructure investment as ‘good debt’ is a welcome relief from politicised funding decisions and helping build the case for more substantive investments.
Supporting these moves, the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) joined the Australian Local Government Association, Planning Institute of Australia, National Growth Areas Alliance, Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia, Australian Logistics Council, and the National Farmer’s Federation in a joint statement on Australia’s infrastructure future in the lead-up to the budget.
We argued that the federal government should not shy away from borrowing for public infrastructure investment, particularly while interest rates are low and Australia’s economic credibility remains competitively high. The secret is to invest in our cities like we would a business, borrowing when it’s prudent to invest to lock-in benefits for the long-term.
But to make sure these investments deserve to be on the ‘good’ side of the budget ledger, we need to put in place some mechanisms to measure and communicate the ‘good’ that comes from that.
Taxpayers should expect that generational investments in our cities create long-term value and an ongoing return on investment in the broadest sense. And any new infrastructure should achieve independent third-party certification that confirms that value and communicates it back to the community. This helps hold our politicians accountable for the outcomes they promise, and delivers the assurance we expect when our hard-earned dollars are put to work.