Friday, May 22, 2009

Transport Infrastructure in Nigeria - Evaluation and Prioritisation

Transport infrastructure is a prerequisite—though by no means a guarantee—of economic development. However, in this current climate of global financial crisis and dwindling commodity prices, governments across the world are aiming to invest in transport infrastructure that provides the best ‘bank for their bucks’. Gone are the days, when government embark on transport projects that offer little or no public benefit, or projects which can be considered not be economically viable. The government needs to understand which schemes and interventions are most important? Which must be done first? Which are the most crucial for achieving agreed objectives? Which will benefit users more? While some of the projects undertaken by government might look impressive in the eye of the masses, especially in a country like Nigeria with significant infrastructure deficit, the ongoing maintenance/operating costs to the government can sometimes be exorbitant. Transport infrastructure projects that are not economically viable can also be a massive drain on the government budget.

It is common knowledge that the cost of providing transport infrastructure can only be affordable if it is subsidised by the government. If the provider decides to charge the true cost, it is likely to be prohibitive to the masses. And this is a major reason, why public transport is not allowed to operate in totally deregulated market. Although subsidies are paid, it is still important that some of the operating costs are recovered. However in some western economies, the cost recovery can be as low as 30%. The long term effect of the maintenance and operating costs of transport infrastructure is one of the fundamental reasons why these western economies develop evaluation and prioritisation framework for major transport infrastructure projects. Before funds for transport projects are appropriated in government budgets, these projects are subject to rigorous analysis which addresses the social, environmental and economic impacts of such projects. The business case supporting such projects needs to be compelling to convince the government that such projects are viable and offer sound public benefits. The evaluation framework used to assess transport infrastructure projects is usually devoid of any regional and political bias and form the basis of independent advice to Ministers.

This process of project evaluation assists in determining whether a project meets efficiently the country's economic and social objectives. For country like Nigeria, with different competing demands across sub-regional areas and massive infrastructure deficit, it could be advantageous in balancing community needs. Unfortunately, we currently have a situation where the government needs to be seen as investing in all six geo-political zones of the federation, even if some of the transport investments lack any merit or long term benefits. Public commentators will also continue to query the rationale behind some of these projects until the government is more transparent about its decision-making process.

For example, the widening of the Abuja Airport-Expressway and Outer Northern Expressway to 10-lanes is being done at cost of $1.7bn. From a transport infrastructure planning perspective, the questions that come to mind are, how did the govt come to the decision to spend $1.7bn on widening these roads? Has the govt considered other ‘soft’ engineering traffic management options or even passenger rail? How does the need to widen these Abuja roads stack up against other strategic roads in the country that requires urgent rehabilitation? Is the business case supporting such investment compelling enough? The same questions can also be asked of Lagos-Kano Rail Modernisation Project.

The government needs to deviate from the conventional approach of making transport infrastructure projects decisions without any sound social, economic and environmental rationale. The government should not just be seeking advice on just construction costs and traffic performance; they need information on long-term and indirect impacts on society's mobility, the environmental impacts/consequences, as well as the ability to serve diverse needs. The need for better understanding of the social, economic and environmental consequences of transport infrastructure projects is now required more than ever before.

Prioritisation is a valuable transport planning process which ensures delivery of transport-related objectives in a cost effective and efficient manner. It is about deciding "what to spend, in what areas to achieve the results you want", or making sure expenditure is prioritised on schemes and interventions that achieve the most.

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