Q&A with Ben Owen: "Evaluate, Enable, Engage" for Mass Transit Investment

How can national governments effectively evaluate transport projects for funding? Photo by Frédéric Bisson.

EMBARQ (the producer of this blog) this week released a new report, “Evaluate, Enable, Engage: Principles to Support Effective Decision Making in Mass Transit Investment Programs,” which provides a framework for national transit investment programs. The report reviews the structure of 13 countries’ national funding programs and sets out three pillars to support effective decision making:

  • Rationale
  • Deliverability
  • Local buy-in

We spoke with the author, Benjamin Owen, about his key findings and how he hopes they will influence national government investments in mass transit.

How did you choose the 13 national programs included in the report?

I wanted to include as many national governments’ mass transit investment programs as possible. (As we discuss in the report, some “programs” are actually components of broader infrastructure investment programs.) Given time constraints, though, I focused on programs that detailed their processes on their public websites and for which translation was fairly straightforward, or where EMBARQ network staff and contacts were able to provide critical information. Ultimately, I think we achieved a reasonable geographic balance and a good blend of developed- and developing-country programs.

The report includes national transit investment programs from developed countries, as well as emerging economies. What differences did you find between well-established and newer programs?

More established programs tended to have more prescriptive guidance, for instance, detailed specifications for cost-benefit analyses or project management documentation, than newer programs. This isn’t surprising, as a more established program correlates with more investment experience, both at the national and local levels. Some of the newer programs have only funded a few projects so far, so it may be hard to draw conclusions about which procedural elements work and which don’t. Another factor is that many of the newer programs are in developing countries with very rapid urbanization and motorization, so the need for mass transit is immediate, and a simpler process may help to deploy projects faster.

What are the report’s key conclusions about how national governments can effectively evaluate projects for funding?

For one, we encourage national governments to require project sponsors to define the transportation problem that needs to be solved and assess alternative strategies—not only infrastructural—to alleviate the problem. This is a matter of good planning and making sure that proposed projects and complementary activities, such as land use policy changes, are viable solutions to the problems at hand.

We also encourage them to compare costs and benefits of proposed projects. Cost-benefit analysis is central to this comparison in many programs, but there are many possible qualitative factors, too, and every country’s policy thrust is a bit different.

Finally, we encourage separation of technical analyses and political decisions, so as to make the assessment process and standards clear to project sponsors. Clarity in the evaluation process is important. Project sponsors should know what information they are expected to provide and how it will be evaluated.

The report highlights the importance of ensuring deliverability of mass transit projects. What are some of the unique project implementation challenges facing cities in developing countries?

Regardless of context, any major urban infrastructure project carries a lot of potential risks, and we outline several types of risk in the report.  For many developing-country cities, though, there may be little local experience with mass transit investments, so overall technical capacity to develop and implement projects is lower. This applies at the national level, too. The entities that administer funding programs need to be able to ensure they’re funding implementable projects and raising deliverability questions to minimize cost overruns and schedule slippage. The experience of multilateral institutions, private firms, nongovernmental organizations and universities that have consulted on or funded mass transit projects in other places can help a lot in this area.

A lack of regulation of the public transportation market is also a concern in some developing-country cities. The private operators that provide service may object to projects that pose a threat to their profitability.  On the other hand, these operators have valuable knowledge of public transportation operations that local governments may lack.  So it’s important to engage them in the development of the project and make sure that they can share in the project’s benefits.

What were some of the more innovative ways national programs encouraged engagement with local stakeholders?

Most programs require proposed projects to be consistent with locally developed transportation plans. In many countries, local or regional governments are required by law to develop these plans; they aren’t just a means to obtain funding from a single program, which I think gives the plans more legitimacy. In several countries, projects must also be consistent with land use plans, which is very important, since the nature of development near project stations is key to project ridership and revenue.

Public engagement is a critical piece of project planning and can help to ensure that popular projects do not fall victim to changes in political administrations. Ideally, public engagement begins as part of the broader transportation planning process and carries through project development.  This is the approach in England and the United States, where the public must have involvement opportunities as plans are developed.  Guidance from France’s program advises sponsors on optimal points for public consultation during project development.

What influence do you hope the report will have?

We developed the report’s recommendations to be broad enough that they can be applied across a range of institutional and development contexts, while still highlighting examples of practice that we think improve the amount and quality of information available for decisionmakers.  I hope that the report can serve as a manual of sorts for national governments that are developing new funding programs for mass transit investments and considering how to improve existing programs.

Similarly, I think multilateral development banks and nongovernmental organizations, such as EMBARQ, that are working with developing-country governments to improve mass transit can benefit from the recommendations for structuring programs and assessing projects, especially in light of the major funding commitments announced at Rio+20.  I’m not aware of any other publications that have tackled this topic, so I’ll be very interested to see how it’s used in practice, and welcome any feedback to this effect!

Learn more and download the full report.

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