Friday 19 December 2014

Why you should campaign and vote to kill bad infrastructure projects

Summary: Big, expensive, city-changing infrastructure projects that are likely to fail, blowout in cost/time, cause major adverse impacts or simply miss the opportunity to radically improve the city, need to be killed as early as possible. You can't trust most politicians, bureaucrats, project-connected experts and especially private corporations to deliver the best social outcomes. Citizens need to inform themselves early enough to get directly involved in forcing the best decisions to be made. Urban cyclists often have the most to lose from bad projects as they shred funds that could be spent on cycling infrastructure as well as embed massive obstacles that entrench car-centric urban design. In this post, I'll collate salient articles and examples of these projects and the battles to kill or reshape them.

Flickr CC by 2.0 - WSDOT

Related Posts:
> See the politics and transport futures category of this blog.
Why public transport hell persists and why only cycling can free you from it

1. If progressive, educated and politically-active cities like Seattle can end up with terrible mega-projects that refuse to die, so can any city
- The trigger for this post was reading some extremely insightful and prescient articles about Seattle's decision to build a high-risk tunnel to replace an existing harbourside freeway when it clearly has the least social benefits out of the options available.

Alaskan Way Viaduct - Flickr CC by 2.0, WSDOT

- The tragic thing is that the key risks, deficiencies and adverse outcomes Seattle is now faced with were known well in advance. The political and bureaucratic decision makers had no excuses and there was a heated and prolonged political battle. Yet the wrong decision was still made as an insufficient number of residents actively campaigned and voted against it, presumably because not enough understood just how bad the tunnel option was. The below articles provide an excellent case study in why citizens need to take responsibility for ensuring these horrendous mega-projects, that are either misguided or serve vested interests, are completely killed off early enough or redesigned for the best social outcomes. The community groups that tried to do so won several battles over the years but got steamrolled in the end.
Read Holden’s story for details, or my long 2010 interview with local activist Cary Moon, which comprehensively covers the reasons this thing is a bad idea. In short: There is no plan to resolve the dispute over cost overruns, which are ubiquitous on projects like this; at $4.2 billion, it’s the most expensive transportation project in state history. The tunnel will have no exits — no ingress or egress — throughout the entire downtown core (which makes the support of downtown businesses all the more mystifying). It won’t allow transit, only cars. It will be tolled, highly enough, by the state’s own estimates, to drive nearly half its traffic onto the aforementioned side streets. It will be a precarious engineering feat, the widest deep-bore tunnel in history, digging right between a) Puget Sound and b) the oldest part of Seattle, with vulnerable buildings and God-knows-what buried infrastructure. Also: Pollution. Climate change. It’s the 21st f’ing century. On and on. People said all this and more, in real time, to no avail. One of the people fighting hardest against the tunnel? Visionary mayor Mike McGinn, who spent his term in office warning that exactly what is happening now was going to happen. For his efforts, Seattle voted him out of office. We prefer to hang on to our illusions.
Grist: Seattle’s unbelievable transportation megaproject fustercluck

> Grist: Seattle’s unbelievable transportation megaproject fustercluck
> The Stranger: What Could Possibly Go Wrong
> The Stranger: Who to Blame for Bertha
The Stranger: We Need to Stop Trying to Rescue This Tunnel Project and Consider Our Options
> Grist: Seattle's impending car-centric mega-tunnel: a chat with urbanist Cary Moon
> D Magazine: What other cities learned
> Grist: When it comes to roads and rail, we force government to lie to us

2. Killing off Melbourne's East West Link & Tunnel was a narrow escape not based in strong, majority support
- While Victorian voters ultimately ensured the East West Link project won't proceed by tossing out the conservative Coalition government at a fortuitously timed election, most voters were not strongly against the project. Under different circumstances - for example, the Coalition government having gotten started much earlier in its four year term - it would have been difficult to kill off the project without a much larger section of the state population actively campaigning against it. Several very committed, grassroots community groups proved vital in gradually mobilising sufficient, sustained pressure to force the main opposition party (Labor) to lock itself in to killing the project if elected - which only happened just before the election. This was a narrow escape from what would have been a horror mega-project that consumed much of Melbourne's transport budget and agenda for a decade.

> ABC News: The East West Link project explained
> ABC News: East West Link - Labor accuses Napthine government of 'fraud on epic scale' over road project
ABC News: Victoria election 2014 - Almost half of voters support East West Link toll road, Vote Compass reveals
> The Urbanist: What can we learn from the East West Link debacle?

- Alan Davies isolates key lessons from this project, principally that a careful cost-benefit analysis must be released up front to inform an accurate public debate on which project proposals should proceed and which should be stopped. However, the failure to release the East West Link analysis in advance and the very nature of the project, given what we know about the utility of building more road capacity, was sufficient for any engaged citizen to educate themselves as to the counter-arguments and get involved politically to add to the pressure - at least for the analysis to be revealed and scrutinised before steaming ahead. Those who didn't actively oppose this project should now consider the arguments with the facts on the table and, if they now recognise what a mistake this mega-project would have been, remember this experience when the next big infrastructure project is put forward:
Of all the benefits flowing from the Victorian government’s decision to release publicly the business case for the East West Link motorway, one of the most important is the contribution this action can potentially make to improving the public debate around major projects. The documents released by the Premier, Daniel Andrews, show the dangers and the rank stupidity of taking an uncritical approach to multi-billion dollar infrastructure investment decisions. The former Victorian government promised the East West Link would deliver massive benefits for all and sundry. However the public wasn’t allowed to see the analysis purporting to support the claims because it was “commercially sensitive”. But when the numbers were revealed to public gaze by Mr Andrews last Monday, we got a wholly different picture. It turns out that were it to proceed, the costs of the East West Link would exceed the benefits by a large margin. 
This sort of disconnect between the glamorous public promise and the hard-nosed reality is no great surprise. There’s no shortage of politicians, boosters, enthusiasts and advocates who relentlessly argue that the sorts of projects they favour should be funded despite what careful and even-handed analysis might show. Their project should proceed, they say, because it’s “visionary”; because it’ll give us “the future we want”; because it’s “nation-building”; because it’ll eliminate “congestion”; because it’ll “save the planet”; or because it fits the biases of those advocating the expenditure of what, it should be emphasised, are public funds. Analysis that might help understand if the net benefits really are as large as the boosters conveniently take for granted, or that might identify alternative opportunities that give a higher social pay-off, is blithely dismissed as the work of boring bean counters.
The Urbanist: What can we learn from the East West Link debacle?
Facebook: East West Tunnel Pledge

3. Red flag indicators of bad projects
- There are several ways to assess whether a publically-funded, city-changing project is the best alternative for achieving social outcomes as opposed to serving narrow, private interests.

Project Red Flag Indicator
No comprehensive, independent cost-benefit analysis is available and other key facts and documents are kept secret. When projects aren't in the public interest or the best alternative, proper analysis is hidden or prevented
Reliably independent organisations and experts advise against the project proceeding either absolutely or without further analysis, rationale or improvement
Identify who benefits the most, especially financially, from the project proceeding - e.g. infrastructure firms, financiers, land bankers, developers, etc.
Identify whether the politicans and groups pushing for the project are supported by narrow/private interests that benefit disproportionately
Projects building infrastructure for cars dismiss or ignore the arguments and evidence that building more roads can't solve congestion problems
Advertising for the project makes grand claims of benefits that have no genuine evidence and seem too good to be true
There is a sudden rush to sign contracts and lock in poison pills (for subsequent cancellation) when the project may be threatened by risk of cancellation (e.g. an election)

Further Info:
Seattle Tunnel to replace Alaskan Way Viaduct
Seattle’s unbelievable transportation megaproject fustercluck

The Stranger
What Could Possibly Go Wrong
Who to Blame for Bertha

NY Times
In Seattle, a Sinking Feeling About a Troubled Tunnel

Seattle - The Alaskan Way Viaduct

Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel

Melbourne East West Link & Tunnel
> East West Link

The Urbanist
What can we learn from the East West Link debacle?
Three misconceptions about the East West Link
Is Melbourne’s East West Link dead in the water?
Is there a case for keeping the East West Link business plan a secret?
Should Labor repudiate Melbourne’s East West Link?

Trains not Tollroads

Yarra Campaign for Action on Transport (YCAT)
> East West business case finally made public

Victorian Public Transport Users Association

Public Transport Not Traffic
What's wrong with the East-West toll road

Social Media
> Facebook: East West Tunnel Pledge

ABC News
Victorian election 2014: East West Link could cost almost $18b, academics say

The Age/SMH
> East West Link: Labor's sensible U-turn on nation's most expensive toll road

Sydney WestConnex Motorway
Sydney Morning Herald
Damning report into WestConnex motorway released by NSW auditor-general
WestConnex: Turnbull, Greiner criticise the 'very sad outcome'

Community Transportation Advocacy Groups
> TransForm California

Cycling Infrastructure
The Stranger
Okay, Fine, It's War
Another Cyclist Has Died—So Will the City Council Finally Fund Bike Safety Improvements?