Where are the (infrastructure) white elephants?

With the renewed political focus on regional development, it’s timely to think about white elephants – in this instance specifically about Infrastructure White Elephants.

Anytime politicians are excited by regional development, herds of white elephants can’t be far away. I touched on this important matter in a previous post on “visionary” projects, but now I’m interested to know which projects, if any, qualify as Infrastructure White Elephants.

To begin with I’ll use a simple definition – according to Wiki, a white elephant is a valuable possession whose level of use is low relative to its cost to build and maintain.

On that definition I’d be tempted to include Sydney’s Cross City tunnel and Brisbane’s Clem 7 under-river tunnel on my list of provisional white elephants, as initial traffic levels were much lower than forecast. Then going back a bit, other potential candidates might include the Ord River Scheme and more recently the Alice Springs to Darwin rail line.

In Melbourne there’s the Southern Star Observation Wheel, the Docklands film studio (although I hear it’s getting busier) and of course Melbourne Bike Share is showing worrying signs that it could become the definitive Infrastructure White Elephant.

There are some definitional issues here. How for example do you handle a project like Sydney’s Airport Link train that only makes a profit because it initially went into receivership and was acquired by the new operator on a lower cost basis? And when is it a stuff-up rather than a white elephant? How low does usage have to be – is simply making a financial loss enough to qualify for white elephant status?

But most observers don’t seem too worried by such complications. This one has made up a list that includes Federation Square, the NSW Millennium Train project, the National Wine Centre in Adelaide and the Queensland magnesium light metals project.

And here’s someone’s list of Melbourne’s white elephants – Eastlink, the Regional Fast Rail project, MYKI, Federation Square, Southern Cross Station, Southern Star Observation Wheel, Albert Park Grand Prix and Waverley Park.

I think most of these are better described as stuff-ups, mistakes or con jobs than as white elephants. Earning the status of Infrastructure White Elephant is not easy – in my view the common understanding of the term requires that usage be very low for a sustained period.

Maybe ‘White Elephant’ is too restrictive. The simplest thing might be just to look at projects where the benefits are unambiguosly lower than the costs and treat White Elephants as a subset. There must be many of these already (suggestions?) but it’s likely there’ll be many more anytime politicians start trumpeting about regional development.

7 Comments on “Where are the (infrastructure) white elephants?”

  1. Matthew says:

    Adelaide’s South Eastern Freeway – a four lane freeway that goes to a satellite city that was never built.

    The whole city of Canberra.

  2. TomD says:

    Can’t help but notice Alan, how often planners and politicians seemingly sole or central basis for evaluating the worth of a project or a program is strictly a monetary one. The cost/benefit equation being just one part of this particular mindset.

    Yet the basis of any criteria being used to undertake such fundamental measures (of public good, or national and economic progress) is critically important … because they possess so many serious and significant flow on effects. Some good, but some very bad too.

    Financial measures in particular can either be providing a meaningful and genuinely helpful ‘measuring stick’ or alternatively, encouraging policies and practices which can prove terribly harmful and even environmentally disastrous (ultimately to the point of life threatening).

    In terms of harmful social and environmental consequences and erroneous social understandings, the best and most dubious example that I can draw upon is the way the GNP measure has been used as if some holiest of the holy gift from God. Yet in reality it is a particularly misleading, blinkered and cold hearted economic measure, long in need of major reform and replacement. (By something more meaningful and holistically accurate, a new set of criteria that include a core range of missing ‘quality of life’ considerations, let alone the factoring in of the broader ecological repecussions, for better or worse, flowing from economic activity itself.)

    An oft quoted example of the twisted logic taken seriously by GNP measurements is the otherwise horrific high speed highway car accident (causing death, destruction and waste) being subsequently treated as a positive outcome and addition to the GNP, because of the way it generates more economic activity and expenditure via ambulance expenses, hospital treatments, drugs, car repairs, etc.

    Also lost within this contemporary (hard line/narrow outlook) monetary based view of the world is that of rightful ongoing and genuine respect for the concept of the ‘Commonwealth’ … as in the ‘Commonwealth of Australia’.

    Put simply, this welcome construct used to once (far more wholeheartedly) acknowledge that pooling and sharing everyone’s combined tax resources allows governments to use this greater ‘common wealth’ to do things for the good of people and society that might otherwise never be financially possible or even ‘viable’.

    And not even for ALL the people necessarily, because the needs of minorities (often with the blessing of a majority of voteres) are also frequently deliberately and compassionately factored into this truly cooperative social and political system. (Essentially ‘socialism’ in the best sense of the word.)

    Certainly, wastes of money should be avoided and money spent to best effect where possible, but I think these other considerations are the equally important and conveniently set aside components to a much bigger policy and project picture. Just how much ‘vision’ of the worthy kind (looking beyond what is) would ever be fostered if the financial feasibility aspect was always left dominant.

    Is a lower than expected traffic flow or aesthetically and spiritually more beautiful building (at extra ‘unjustifiable’ cost) something that maximum scrutiny should be applied to, while the cost of so much military expenditure and so many dubious wars – by stark contrast – goes unquestioned.

    Should the private sector, its public subsidies and corporate spending – including salary and benefits differentials – be placed under just as much monetary scrutiny as the public sector to keep some sense of public perspective about all these issues?

    Yes, failure on their part can mean they just go broke (if they are not being bailed out with public funds) but even here the true measures of what has been lost and by whom are not dwelled upon in any deep or lasting way.

    I imagine there are many ‘white elephants’ from the past that we could not imagine the loss of today! Where does the Taj Mahal sit in such analysis? Gross expenditure by despotic ruler, overprice cemetary head stone, unnecessary and wasteful ego trip? Of course, the contemporary economic heads would have to factor in branding value or tourism economy generator with centuries of multiplier effects, but where is the calculation for spiritual value, aesthetic wonder, architectural masterpiece, civic, cultural and national pride, and more!

    (Incidentally, unlike Matthew, I have no real problem with Canberra. As a city at least, the more I see of it the more I like it. Circular street patterns, relative lack of city centre and all! National institutions aside, the intensity of its landscaping alone, should be emulated everywhere else around Australia.)

    • Alan Davies says:

      I think what we could call the Taj Mahal Problem is that qualities like “architectural masterpiece” or “national monument” are invariably conferred in retrospect (often well after) rather than confidently predicted at the project planning stage. If it were possible to be confident about the probability of a building becoming (say) an “international icon” then valuing the economic benefits wouldn’t be that hard.

  3. Russ says:

    Tom, I don’t know about Alan, but I’d turn cartwheels if urban (statutory, strategic, heritage, etc. but not transport) planners in government ever did a cost-benefit analysis of anything. Most planing policies are almost obnoxiously neglectful of economic considerations.

    On the matter of white elephants. My impression is that they also carry the whiff of excessive promise, failure elsewhere and government handouts to private industry. Mono-rails feature prominently here, not least because of the classic Simpsons parody, but also stadiums, ferris wheels, any near empty legacy building of a one-off international event and freeways on water-fronts. Sydney clearly needs a ferris wheel.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I’d be turning cartwheels with you, Russ. And I agree that transport planning is far more rigorous – economic evaluations have been part and parcel of transport projects at least since the 60s and probably earlier.

  4. Peter Parker says:

    Alan, some transport ones I can think of are:

    1. Geelong busport – an attempt to create a bus interchange slightly away from the main shopping street. This was followed by a period of makeshift stops dotted around the city, now being fixed.

    2. Cumberland line Sydney. 1980s/90s rail project that now sees only a handful of trains.

    3. Some bus routes in Melbourne. More operating than capital expenditure. Due to a reluctance to delete when a new service in an adjacent street starts or is upgraded. Hence the result can be two routes offering poor connectivity rather than one high quality one with good connectivity.

    White elephants can sometimes be rehabilitated, 15 or 20 years after being built eg:

    1. Perth city Busport – opened 1991. Slowed buses (especially for through passengers) by introducing a diversion. However with Esplanade station on the Mandurah line nearby it now forms a useful interchange point.

    2. Rail electrification from Altona Junction to Laverton. In 1999 it was used for only one train per day (a pm peak ex city). However use of it has since increased greatly, and it now sees a train every 20 min on weekdays.

    Similar comments apply to the Frankston Line’s third track (although there is freight use of it, making it handy sometimes). This was quite well used after it first opened (albeit peak only), express service was cut in the 1990s, then restored in the June 2010 timetable (again peak use – approx 2-3 hrs/weekday).

  5. […] The trouble is the probability of achieving this vision is close to zero. No one knows what the recipe for international icons is. We can look back and more or less pick out the vital decisions and factors that made the Sydney Opera House the symbol it is today, but doing it prospectively is close to impossible. We’d almost certainly end up with a Melbourne Opera House that was functionally compromised and cost billions more than it needed to, but which nobody outside Victoria gave a second glance. […]

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