Framing: Building the Project Vision

Leading with the Vision, Not the Numbers

The best financial strategies don’t lead with the numbers. They lead with vision. Have you ever gone to a restaurant where the host looks straight at you and asks, “How will you be paying for this?” as soon as you enter? No one does this (unless you want to imply that your customers can’t afford what you’re serving and you really just want them to go away). But in public works, sometimes the discussion around projects begins with the available funding (or simply ends when funding isn’t available). Starting with the project vision first lets stakeholders buy into the vision before they will buy into the ways to pay for it. The most compelling infrastructure projects get funded because people buy into the vision first.

Inclusive Visioning: Determining How the Project Will Serve Communities

  • Great infrastructure projects start with vision; but that vision is incomplete if it doesn’t include the people it will serve.

As the project is developed, it’s important to have representation from:

  • Communities in the geographic area where the project is sited (including diverse demographic groups)
  • Communities affected by revenue and finance tools used by the project
  • Agencies involved in future operation and maintenance
  • Agencies and stakeholders whose missions will somehow be impacted by the project (positively or negatively, e.g., public health, economic development, housing, transportation, etc.) <

Tapping Multiple Disciplines

  • In order to frame a project that responds to multiple challenges, it’s important to have a variety of disciplines participate in early project development.

When individuals from various disciplines and backgrounds are jointly framing a project, one question that can help surface different perspectives is “What problem(s) are we trying to solve?” For engineers, the problem may be optimizing water or traffic flow; for economic development specialists, the problem may be stimulating the local economy; for public health experts, the issue may be better air quality and walkable environments, and for community members, the issues may be access to affordable housing, safety, and green spaces. Having all of them at the table can create projects that can multisolve.

By bringing a diverse group of stakeholders to the table, agencies can also refine what kinds of services the community may need, and how their project might best be able to serve them.

Framing Multi-Purpose Projects, with Multiple Co-Benefits

  • Inclusive visioning allows agencies to re-frame a project to solve multiple challenges at once.

For example, a transit station isn’t just a transit station; it can be a locus for affordable transit-oriented development, economic development via retail space, green energy via solar features, and community gathering via park and recreational amenities. Green stormwater infrastructure, which uses plants, soil, and other natural elements to help manage excess water, can be a recreational amenity, an aesthetic feature leading to higher land values, a form of flood control, and ecosystem habitat, all at the same time.

Iterative Framing: Catching Up with a Moving Target

  • As a project evolves, and city conditions and needs change, it’s natural to revisit the framing multiple times.

Changes to the project vision often increase cost. It’s common when conducting outreach on public works projects for additional elements to be added at the request of the communities involved. Industry participants and academics that track increasing project budgets often criticize this phenomenon as “scope creep,” seeing it as evidence of mismanaged costs.

In many cases, scope creep is really scope enhancement. A project may be getting larger in cost, size, and complexity but so are its benefits and the services it can offer the community. In dense urban areas, projects need to be able to serve multiple purposes and provide multiple features. If infrastructure is being done right, projects will acquire new features that will bring greater cost. The challenge for public agencies is to make sure that these cost increases bring positive, not negative publicity to the project and the agency conducting it. They also need to ensure that they are tied to the outcomes that benefit the community and stakeholders.

Considering Long Term Operations and Maintenance

  • Once a project has been framed, an agency needs to consider how it will be operated and maintained over the long term.

Projects that might involve a change to traditional models require particular attention, since an agency may not know how the new models or new type of infrastructure will perform over time.

For example, managing green stormwater infrastructure (retention ponds, etc.) is very different from managing gray stormwater infrastructure (pipes and sewer systems). Municipal utility staff know how to inspect pipes and do corrosion control. Traditional gray infrastructure also isn’t as accessible to the public, so there’s less chance of vandalism or performance failure due to human action.

Green stormwater infrastructure may require more active management, weeding, raking, mulching, mowing, and removing trash and sediment. When features are also used as a recreational amenity, more people are able to access green stormwater sites and potentially leave trash or other debris. Part of the scoping for the project needs to include consideration of:

  • Which agency will perform these activities (it may not be the same agency that oversees construction);
  • How much they will cost;
  • What the potential cost of failure would be; and
  • What entity will undertake the liability risk if a failure causes flooding?

Other kinds of infrastructure may present their own asset management challenges. For example, if a city decides to create leasable space by decking over tunnels, it needs to consider how the space would be maintained, and which entity undertakes the liability risk if a failure occurs. Transit agencies that undertake joint development projects may have to consider the long-term operations and maintenance issues for commercial space (which differ from O&M for transit facilities). If an agency decides to partner with nonprofit organizations as part of its O&M approach for pedestrian infrastructure, how will it handle liability for injuries to volunteers, or for damages or injuries associated with the organizations’ failure to adequately maintain the facilities? These are just examples of the multi-disciplinary questions that need to inform long-term capital planning.

Identifying Long-Term Risks

  • Communities need to consider how projects will be affected by long-term trends, including climate change, demographic changes, and technology shifts.

Sea level rise could require hardening of flood control infrastructure and relocation or hardening of other infrastructure facilities, such as streets, transit and highway tunnels, or electrical facilities. Demographic changes might mean that more elderly residents will be using transportation infrastructure, requiring higher levels of accessibility, and making a robust transit system more vital for seniors who may no longer drive. Technology included in projects can become obsolete shortly after it is deployed. For example, early toll road P3s contained a lot of performance standards related to call centers for toll payers inquiring about their bills. There were no performance standards for a website or cell phone app, which are now much more commonly used by customers who wish to communicate about their bills.

Identifying those kinds of risks early in the process (at a high level) can inform future procurement decisions. In particular, early risk identification can support later consideration of whether a P3 might be beneficial to the project. In general, agencies should consider P3s when there is a risk that can be managed more cost-effectively by a private entity or outcomes-based financing.