Evidence and leadership in transport policy: Sri Lanka and Canada

Mar 26, 2012 (LBO) – I like the fact that the present government gets things done. The planning for the Southern Expressway started in 1988. It was completed in 2011, over budget, a few years late and with some shortcomings. But, most importantly, it was completed.

Construction on the airport expressway started in the early 1960s. The attempt under the Kumaratunga administration ended in arbitration, damages paid to contractors and no road. Based on this government’s track record, I am confident there will be an operational airport expressway within the next two years.

Neglect of evidence

But there appears to be a disturbing lack of weight given to expertise. In his speech at the inauguration of the Hambantota Port in 2010 the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Port Authority recounted how the President had asked all those who were not fully in favor of the port in the present location not to attend future meetings.

Decisive leadership, one may think. The fact that the port got built in record time is proof that’s the right way to do things, one may conclude. But the lack of ships in a port that was inaugurated more than a year ago leads to another conclusion: decisive action at the cost of not fully weighing expert evidence may not be the right way to do things.

It would be self-serving, for someone like me who makes his living advising governments, to argue that important policy decisions should be taken on the basis of expert opinion alone. No one voted for me.

In any case, my advice (and that of all experts) is never perfect. We work with incomplete information. We use assumptions that shape the conclusions. We argue from analogy. We frame the issues in various debatable ways. If the expert does the job right, her advice constitutes the best available evidence. Expert advice cannot be the only factor in making major public-policy decisions. But it must be an essential factor in the decision-making process.

If the policy is wrong, it is the politician who takes the blame, not the behind-the-screen consultant. Therefore, it is only right that the politician makes the final call.

How they do things in Toronto

I spent a few days in Toronto, Canada’s largest city. It has pretty good public transport, but as in any city there are weak spots, either because of prior planning decisions or because of new growth. As with any major public investments, there are differences of opinion about the optimal course of action.

The current debate is about an area known as Sheppard East. The debate is not about improving public transit but about the technology that would be most cost-effective: underground rail-based (extending the current “Subway” network) or Light Rail Transit, an above-ground, rail-based system along the existing roadway of Sheppard Avenue East.

As in any democratic system of governance, there is no single decision maker. The Mayor is an important decision maker, but he is not the sole decision maker. The Council of 44 members must agree too. Since the Province of Ontario and the Federal Government may contribute funds, they too have a say.

Apparently, there is popular support for the underground option. The harsh Canadian winter may be an influence. But, tunneling costs a lot more than an above-the-surface option. And the breakeven commuter volumes needed to support an extension of the Subway do not exist, according to some experts.

So the City Council had appointed an expert panel to assess the evidence and make recommendations. A few days back they presented a 66-page report that weighed the pros and cons of the above- and below-ground options as well as a hybrid option that extended the Subway half-way and then used Light Rail Transit for the rest of the way. Their recommendation was for the above-ground Light Rail option.

The Mayor, who supports the underground option, dismissed the panel’s recommendations as “hogwash.” He said the councilors should listen to the people, not to a “biased” panel, and that the people want the Subway extended.

I was told that the Chair of City Council, an ally of the Mayor who was previously a Subway proponent, had changed her mind as a result of the report and that the Council majority was now in favor of the above-ground option.

Lessons for us

The final decision, yet to be taken, will be worked out by the principal political players. But the important thing is that both sides, as well interested stakeholders and members of the public, can draw on expert opinion embodied in the 66-page report. The final decision will be political, but it is fully based on expert evidence.

If we in Sri Lanka follow similar procedures, we will have fewer white elephant projects saddling present and future taxpayers. And the benefits, to the people and the country, will be that much greater.

Recently, announcements were made about an express rail link from the airport. It is to terminate at the planned Lotus Tower, not the principal transport hub of Colombo, which is the Pettah.

We’ve been kicking around a national transport policy for some time. Surely, it would be worth considering how the airport link contributes to the articulation of different modes of public transport, an accepted principle of transport planning included in the draft policy? Perhaps the solution is not either/or. Perhaps the solution is that of connecting the Lotus Tower to the back of the Fort Railway Station, and thereby to the Pettah transportation hub.

Even if we leave aside national policy and planning principles, it may be worth asking the Malaysian proponents of the airport link whether they have good reasons to deviate from the design of the Kuala Lumpur airport link. It terminates in the main railway station and is well articulated with other modes.

Should we not appoint an expert panel to consider the options and present some evidence to the decision-makers, stakeholders and us, the people who will be paying the bills? Would this not be a good way to control the white-elephant population?