Is being “visionary” sufficient to justify new infrastructure?

All the talk around at the moment about ‘visionary’ infrastructure projects like High Speed Rail (HSR), the National Broadband Network (NBN) and a rail link to Melbourne Airport, reminds me how much Australians love to gamble.

Big and costly projects that don’t stack up on conventional evaluation criteria are often justified as being in the ‘national interest’; or the result of ‘big thinking’; or comprehensible in the “big picture’; or contributing to ‘nation building’.

Proponents frequently resort to the Field of Dreams argument: “if it’s built, they will come”*. Some cite ambitious projects like the Snowy Mountains Scheme, the Ord River Scheme and the Sydney Opera House, contending that they would not have been built if it weren’t for some big thinking. However they conveniently omit to mention the downsides of these projects, or any ‘visionary’ schemes that are widely thought to be disappointments (let alone any that were unmitigated disasters).

More informed proponents will focus on the foresight of previous generations who built infrastructure like the national and urban rail systems, water supply and sewerage systems and the electricity generation and distribution networks. Some even mention the elaborate freeways within and between our major cities.

The argument is commonly put that if the visionary politicians, engineers and financiers of a century and more ago hadn’t looked beyond economic and financial criteria at the time, much of the infrastructure we value today would not be available for the use of current generations. And we are very fortunate they did, so this line of argument goes, because it would be impossibly expensive to provide infrastructure on that scale today.

That’s all very well, but I don’t think this interpretation tells the whole story. Read the rest of this entry »