Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Survival of the Unfittest: Why the Worst Infrastructure Gets Built

The worst infrastructure gets built! This is the concise conclusion of analysis by Oxford University professor Bent Flybjerg who for many years has been emphasizing the pitfalls of "megaprojects" which typically turn out to:
  • be much more costly than predicted before construction started
  • provide fewer benefits that planners predicted, and
  • attain a 50% lower ridership than predicted, for urban rail systems
Dr. Flybjerg attributes this to several factors, many of which are prevalent in the proposed Honolulu rail megaproject, as shown below, followed by my assessment from * meaning "not so much in Honolulu rail " to ***** "spot on for Honolulu rail":
  • Such projects are inherently risky owing to long planning horizons and complex interfaces. (***** Honolulu rail is all elevated, heavy rail in the middle of vital arterial streets of a a crowded city with cultural, historical and soils issues)
  • Technology and design are often non-standard. (** Honolulu rail is heavy rail guideway with light rail automatic trains by Ansaldo)
  • Decision-making, planning, and management are typically multi-actor processes with
  • conflicting interests. (**** Honolulu rail is heavily political project built as a city project in the middle of state highways with political push from Senator Inouye in Washington DC.)
  • Often there is ‘lock in’ or ‘capture’ of a certain project concept at an early stage, leaving analysis of alternatives weak or absent. (***** This is exactly why the NEPA-based lawsuit was filled in federal court. Mufi Hannemann took office in Jan. 2005 and by late fall 2006 the ~100 page Alternatives Analysis had selected elevated rail as the "winner".)
  • The project scope or ambition level will typically change significantly over time. (**** Honolulu rail started as a 34 mile proposal for about $4 Billion and right before construction it is a 20-mile $5.2 Billion project that excludes Kapolei town, Waikiki and UH-Manoa!)
  • Statistical evidence shows that such unplanned events are often unaccounted for, leaving budget and time contingencies sorely inadequate. (*** Honolulu rail will be subjected to many changes as eminent domain lawsuits begin once construction starts.)
  • As a consequence, misinformation about costs, benefits, and risks is the norm throughout project development and decision-making, including in the business case. (**** Even pro-rail local newspapers and City Council members gripe about the lack of transparency and the ever evolving changes in costs.)
  • The result is cost overruns and/or benefit shortfalls during project implementation. (***** If built, Honolulu rail's ultimate result will be a 50% cost overrun and a 50% ridership attainment, at best.)
LINK to the full article Survival of the unfittest: why the worst infrastructure gets built—and what we can do about it by Bent Flyvbjerg. Sa¨ıd Business School, University of Oxford, e-mail: bent.flyvbjerg@sbs.ox.ac.uk. Part of the research for this paper was carried out while the author was professor at Aalborg University, Denmark, and Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands.