Infrastructure in the Time of COVID-19

Last week, just near Blues Point, the boring machine finally broke through rock after sculpting a 900-metre tunnel beneath Sydney Harbour.

The significance of this last milestone in Sydney’s city-shaping metro rail project was lost as Coronavirus impacted our families and our world.

 

And while the rock-break itself was rightly overshadowed by this historic pandemic, it is vital that we continue infrastructure projects not only for the essential, planned improvements they will make to our community, but to ensure economic recovery post-virus.

 

We are braced for what seems like an inevitable downturn lead by the aviation, tourism, education and hospitality industries. Governments are making difficult daily, sometimes hourly, decisions on where best to allocate their resources.

 

Infrastructure development and construction is the golden opportunity to broadly feed our economy now while also benefitting longer-term growth.

 

WSP is working on infrastructure projects in every state and sector, and while it’s largely business as usual on most construction sites, there are clear signs that delivery timeframes will be impacted.

 

Delays are stemming from disrupted supply chains, from Europe (worsening) and China (recovering) as well as changing operating procedures to limit contact like split shifts and smaller work-crews. Increased virtual, non-face to face communication between teams is also adding time to project delivery.

 

State border closures limit the ability to move people across states and evolving guidelines make international team movements impossible. This is particularly noticeable with our nearest neighbours like New Zealand.

 

To maintain employment and economic activity, the state and federal government must keep major projects going and going strongly. They should further stimulate activity by accelerating smaller and medium projects and fast-tracking maintenance programs.

 

The short-term return for infrastructure investment is high, boosting job growth more strongly than many other interventions. And in the longer-term, infrastructure investment continues to boost economic growth by increasing the capacity of our economy.

 

Local Councils are rightly focussed on maintaining essential services in their local communities during this challenging time. Key project approvals should be dealt with by State or Commonwealth governments, rather than Local, as speed is important.

 

Governments must also develop, champion and use procurement mechanisms that better allocate risk. Risk that is held by the government cannot uniformly just be moved onto constructors and the private sector.

 

We must use models that quickly engage the whole supply chain – a good example is the Delivery Partner model used on Woolgoolga to Ballina $5B road upgrade, which is bringing 155 km of upgraded motorway to life. Under the model, contractors of all sizes have the opportunity to work on parts of the project, opening up the whole supply chain.

 

Addressing population and demographic movement, congestion, climate change and the resiliency of the built environment remain key challenges of our time. While short-term our focus is on containing the COVID-19 threat, medium and certainly longer-term we must maintain our focus on infrastructure programs.

 

Projects of national and state significance are more critical than ever. Funding and certainty for the infrastructure pipeline are simply essential for our country.

 

Guy Templeton is CEO of WSP in Australia & NZ and Chair of the BCA’s Infrastructure & Growth Committee

 

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