Link21: How strategic business cases can shape infrastructure megaprojects

A Tang Edited - Steer article v1 - Voices of the Industry - SteerInfrastructure megaprojects – so categorized in relation to their scope and cost - have long been appreciated for their contribution to economic growth, but today they are also measured by other metrics such as their potential to lower carbon emissions and improve social equity. 

California High-speed Rail and Project Connect in Austin, Texas have both been approved by voters as a way to boost their respective regions, while the San Fransisco Bay Area may soon be transformed by a project called Link21. 

Currently in the initial stages of development, if Link21 proceeds it would be a new passenger rail connection between San Fransisco and Oakland running beneath the San Francisco Bay. The potential for Link21 to shape Northern California more widely is huge but making the right decisions on such a large undertaking, not to mention significant investment of public funds, is no easy task.

“The program is fairly wide open,” says Andrew Tang, Manager of Program Evaluation for the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART). 

“We’re still in what I call early planning and we're starting to narrow down what the different possibilities are. We're a long way from defining what is traditionally called a project. 

“We need to evaluate all of the different possibilities and my job is to help identify different viable ideas.” 

Business cases and Link21

Andrew uses strategic business cases – frameworks for structured decision making that Steer consultants created (as part of the HNTB PMC team) – to help assess concepts for Link21 and make investment judgments. 

Any infrastructure, and especially megaprojects, carries the possibility of multifactorial negative and positive impacts. Housing, jobs and the environment all stand to be affected and therefore must be addressed as part of the assessment process. 

Link21 operates four business case frameworks; the strategic case which assesses how the concept will meet Link21’s goals and objectives; the economic case which assesses the impacts of concepts on the wider economy of the region including monetizing benefits; the financial case which assesses costs and revenue of the new system; and the deliverability case that assesses what is required for the design, construction and management of the new system as well as risk factors like displacement. 

“We have found the business case to be a very useful way of organizing our thinking,” says Andrew.

“With the number of things to consider, you can quickly become overwhelmed. People throw all sorts of things at you. What about ridership? What about greenhouse gas reduction? What about neighborhood disruption? What about cost? 

“The organization is useful in two different ways. One is for the evaluation team, just to know how all this stuff fits together. The other side is for the consumer of this information, the planner, the public, the policymakers, to see how all of their concerns are organized into the framework, in bite sized chunks.

“All of that information is used to refine the concepts.”

The future for Northern California 

Since the turn of the millennium Northern California has seen huge population and economic growth causing previously distinct regions to bleed into one another thanks to a mixture of increased transit, rising house prices and a concentration of high-skilled jobs in certain areas. 

Today the Northern California Megaregion is comprised of 21 counties and 164 cities across four areas: the Bay Area, the Sacramento Area, Northern San Joaquin Valley and Monterey Bay Area. The megaregion as a whole accounts for 5% of US GDP and is home to just under a third of the population of the state of California, with figures only projected to increase. 

The specific demographic and economic patterns of the megaregion – with high job growth in the Bay Area but large numbers of workers commuting into this area from other zones due to the cost of housing – means that public transit needs to increase in the coming years. Link21 could play a huge part in this planning, boosting rail capacity across the Bay and working as part of a wider network to improve connectivity across all four regions. 

Making the most of the opportunities presented by the idea comes back to the business case framework. So far Link21 has been through three rigorous rounds of business case reviews, with the current focus on what technology will be used for the train and tracks. Following this, future decisions will include which markets and areas will be served by the line after it reaches San Fransisco and Oakland as well as station placement. All will be evaluated by the meticulous and flexible business cases. 

“We talked to policymakers, and they might say they’re really worried about neighborhood impacts, and anyone can point at this framework and say, yeah, that's coming up. They can see how the progression works.” 

“Without that framework and guidance there’s the potential that you're just reacting to everybody's concern and not really thinking about how that fits into the whole program development and the decision-making framework.” 

“The whole thing has a lot of flexibility. To me the business case isn't a cookbook, it's a framework. It's a way of organizing our thinking, to help people make decisions.”


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