SIA and managing urban transport infrastructure projects

Published 30 January 2017 by Lara Mottee MEIANZ, Environmental Scientist KBR, HDR Candidate Macquarie University

Social Impact Assessment (SIA) practitioners in major urban transport projects have a responsibility to ensure equitable distribution of social benefits and costs, while balancing governmental policy objectives and stakeholder interests fairly and rigorously in their assessment of proposals. Practitioners conduct their work with the best information and tools available in the boundaries of political and assessment timeframes. Their contributions form part of post-project evaluations, which are usually measured as within budget or on time, with frequently promoted social benefits turning out to be non-measurable using these evaluation methods (Flyvbjerg, 2014). Furthermore, Flyvbjerg et al. (2003, p.3) reported of a paradox between the societal benefit of an increasing number of infrastructure projects globally and their poor performance in terms of economy, public support and environmental impacts.

The Grattan Institute also recently published a working paper about the problem of significant cost over-runs in transport infrastructure in Australia. The paper investigated 836 projects of value over $20 million from 2001 to date, showing that ninety per cent of Australia’s cost overrun problem is explained by 17 per cent of projects that exceed their promised cost by more than half. Their findings recommended better business case evaluation, which is made publicly available, and that governments should be reporting to the public on operational performance against the cost-benefit estimates behind the original investment decision to manage potential cost-overruns.

Ex-post-facto research case studies which consider whether predicted impacts have occurred are seldom funded and rarely occur (Burdge, 2002; Howitt & Jackson, 2000). As Howitt noted: “Once you've got a project approval, there's a very poor history of going back and checking whether the impacts that were predicted have occurred or haven't occurred” (in Nogrady, 2013). Without appropriate mechanisms to evaluate these successes it is difficult to hold governments accountable for meeting project aims. Poor post-facto evaluation makes it difficult to hold decision-making processes publicly accountable in terms of stated policy goals for megaprojects.

With the increasing desire for continued practice improvements, transparency and accountability and replicable project successes a priority, what methods exist for SIA practitioners evaluate their work post-facto in the development process? Can the long-term effectiveness of SIA management strategies be evaluated against government policy objectives?

Over the past year I have been investigating answers to these questions as part of a pilot study for my Master of Research/PhD at Macquarie University.

My research has involved a multi-methods approach: semi-structured interviews with key project and government stakeholders, desktop review of historical documents and census data, comparative analysis of academic/grey literature and the Parramatta Rail Link Project (PRL) as a pilot case study.

The PRL was proposed as part of the NSW Government masterplan Action for Transport 2010, an integrated transport plan for Sydney (Action for Transport 2010) and was assessed for Sydney over 15 years ago (Department of Transport, 1998a). The PRL was significantly modified before its construction as the Epping to Chatswood Rail Link (ECRL) in 2009. During my research, I investigated how external political decision-making forces, namely government, regulatory and financial processes, influence whether social and transport policy objectives can be met, against the influence of strategic government masterplans and the development approval process.

I identified several factors beyond the established understandings and factors influencing the effectiveness of management strategies in SIAs. To apply these understandings to practice, I developed an evaluation framework for post-facto assessment of transport infrastructure project SIAs that includes the following 11 assessment criteria (Mottee, 2016, p.75):

  1. Transport Plans and Concept and Policy Objectives
  2. Regulatory - Environmental Planning Approvals
  3. Financial Approvals
  4. Design Development & Modifications
  5. Social Impact Assessment / Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)
  6. Social Impact Management Plan
  7. Social Impact Monitoring
  8. Environmental Impact Management and Monitoring
  9. Stakeholder & Community Engagement
  10. Political decision-making process
  11. Transparency & Accountability

My thesis presents each of these assessment criteria, the types of evidence that would be gathered to assess a project against the criteria and broad assessment guidance for evaluation. Applying this framework about ten years’ after the project proposal EIS/SIA process, and repetition over several time periods (for example, 10, 15, 20 years), would allow comparison of both changing outcomes and the changing policy frameworks that emerge to influence post-development decisions, management and interventions.

A key finding from my research highlighted that the agenda of strategic social and transport policy objectives, should also be considered as early as during business case development to achieve the greatest potential for delivering equitable social outcomes. The PRL case study shows that political decision-making occurs, regardless of whether SIA practitioners prepare ‘effective’ SIA reports and management strategies during the approval process and project decisions may be made without further expert assessment of evidence, accountability or evaluation against policy objectives by the politicians.

My research suggests that these external political forces, namely state government bureaucracy, its financial processes and political terms of office have the greater influence upon whether social and transport policy objectives can be met, when compared to the influence of strategic masterplans, and statutory planning and development approval processes. SIA and EIA practitioners can however assist in meeting policy objectives through sound EIA processes in project scoping and development, that apply good practice methods and build long-term accountability, that can be legally enforced beyond political terms through the development of effective management strategies and monitoring programs.

The next phase of my research will be to expand on the initial framework and seek to apply the evaluation framework to the PRL case study (and other examples) to reach a conclusion on management strategy effectiveness. As the framework is intended for expert practitioner and government use, I will also be engaging SIA practitioners and other stakeholders through EIANZ to obtain feedback from those who may apply the framework in the future, as the research progresses.


Burdge, R. J. (2002). Why is social impact assessment the orphan of the assessment process? Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 20(1), 3-9.

Danks, L., & Terrill, M. (2016). Cost overruns in Transport Infrastructure. Gratton Institute. Retrieved from http://grattan.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/878-Cost-overruns-on-transport-infrastructure.pdf

Department of Transport (DoT) (1998a). Action for Transport 2010, an integrated transport plan for Sydney. NSW Government Initiative. Retrieved from http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/38334/20040302-0000/www.transport.nsw.gov.au/pubs_legal/act2010syd.pdf

Flyvbjerg, B., Bruzelius, N., & Rothengatter, W. (2003). Megaprojects and Risk - An Anatomy of Ambition (First ed.). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Flyvbjerg, B. (2014). What you should know about megaprojects and why: an overview. Project Management Journal, 45(2), 6-19.

Howitt, R., & Jackson, S. (2000). Social Impact Assessment and Linear Projects. In L. R. Goldman (Ed.), Social Impact Analysis: an Applied Anthropology manual (pp. 257-294). Oxford: Berg.

Kerr, J. (2003, August 22). Big-ticket items go as Costa redrafts transport blueprint. Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/08/21/1061434990699.html

Mottee, L. (2016). Social Impact Assessment and Managing Urban Transport Infrastructure Projects: Towards a Framework to Evaluate Post-Facto Effectiveness (Unpublished master’s thesis). Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW.

Nogrady, B, (2013). Do Environmental Assessments protect the environment?, Retrieved from, http://www.abc.net.au/environment/articles/2013/03/06/3703819.htm