It’s an exciting time for the sector as Infrastructure Australia releases its yearly Priority List – highlighting the projects that the government should be investing in and key industry trends. In 2021 and beyond, infrastructure opportunities lie in new sources of energy, water assets, regional and remote communities, and developing export gateways at Australia’s ports, among other key proposals. 

For the first time ever, Infrastructure Australia (IA) launched its Priority List with a virtual event that saw more than 800 people tune in across Australia. 

Hosted by Infrastructure magazine’s Managing Editor, Laura Harvey, the event featured an interactive Q&A session with Infrastructure Australia’s CEO, Romilly Madew, and Chief of Infrastructure Prioritisation, Robin Jackson; and a keynote address by Infrastructure Australia Chair, Julieanne Alroe. 

The 2021 Infrastructure Priority List identifies six High Priority Projects, 17 Priority Projects, 48 High Priority Initiatives and 109 Priority Initiatives. This year’s list includes the addition of 44 new proposals to the list, which is the largest number of new proposals ever added. 

Ten projects have also moved off the Priority List and into the construction phase, including the M4 Motorway Upgrade (NSW), METRONET Morley-Ellenbrook Line (WA), and sections of the Bruce Highway and M1 Pacific Motorway (QLD).

Infrastructure Australia Chair, Julieanne Alroe, said the Priority List identifies a $59 billion pipeline of nationally significant investment opportunities for governments to progress in the near, medium and long term.

You can read more about new proposals and projects over here, and below are some of their insights into the List from the virtual event. 

Key areas of infrastructure investment in the future

The main areas of investment opportunities identified by the 2021 Infrastructure Priority List that are of national significance include: 

Export gateways – investment in ports and freight 

In her keynote address, Ms Alroe said the List includes opportunities to develop pathways to support our international competitiveness, as the key theme this year is to support Australia’s economic recovery from the pandemic.

“Alongside many of the existing proposals to support our growing national freight task, there are new investments identified to improve, both the capacity and the efficiency of ports across the country,” Ms Alroe said.

Some of the projects to help do this include: 

  • Western Sydney Freight Line and Intermodal Terminal (NSW)
  • Rail access to Webb Dock (VIC)
  • Australian Marine Complex infrastructure capacity (WA)
  • Port of Burnie capacity (TAS)
  • Hobart Port precinct capacity improvements (Tas)
  • Common user infrastructure at the Middle Arm Precinct (NT)

New energy sources

Ms Madew said that this year’s List reflects the diversity needed in the country’s energy systems and grids, which is highlighted with the inclusion of a number of different proposals.

“The Priority List really recognises that Australia, and the world, is in an energy transition.

“You’ve just got to think about the housetop solar that we’ve seen and the boom in housetop solar in Australia, so [it’s clear] we really are moving our energy sources.”

She said proposals around hydrogen are mentioned in this year’s List, as well as new sources of renewable energy in the Northern Territory, and projects focusing on the reliability, affordability and sustainability of our grid. 

“It really reflects and acknowledges the work by AEMO, what they’ve picked up in their integrated system and the importance of the stability of our grid. So we need to recognise new forms of energy are coming in, and think how that fits, and ensure that we’re prepared for it and that there is a plan,” Ms Madew said.

Ms Alroe agreed that it is critical for economic recovery to invest and seize on the opportunities around new sources of energy. 

“The Priority List recommends investing into dispatchable energy sources to ensure the reliability and security of our energy networks, and identifying a program of works to provide renewable energy to remote communities in the Northern Territory. Also, delivering infrastructure to enable hydrogen exports,” Ms Alroe said.

Water security 

Water security is also a key priority for national investment identified on the List, with Ms Alroe saying, “We are pleased to see progress on this front across Australia, but there is still more to do.”

One of the high priority initiatives supporting this is the Greater Sydney water security initiative, while  priority initiatives include South East Melbourne recycled water supply infrastructure upgrades (VIC); Bowen Basin production water supply (QLD); Northern South Australia productive water security (SA); and Barossa Valley Region water supply (SA). 

Development in regional and remote communities – including increasing digital connectivity and digital health services 

Opportunities in regional and remote Australia are a major focus in this year’s Priority List, reflecting social changes that occurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Previous and ongoing work by Infrastructure Australia has acknowledged the importance of remote regions and the challenges that are felt across Australia, including access to social and economic infrastructure such as healthcare, education, and digital connectivity. 

Then COVID-19 created further challenges for remote Australians. 

“As COVID was continuing over months, people were moving permanently. This wasn’t just temporary, this was permanent – people were moving to our regions and that really meant we had to look at that enabling infrastructure in the regions to ensure they could take this increased capacity,” Ms Madew said. 

“Our children and our young adults went online with their learning and there was clearly a digital divide around Australia in regional, rural and remote Australia. The children and the young adults in those areas didn’t have digital access like they were having in our urban areas. 

“The second change, again linked to digital, was around health – digital health and telehealth. We really saw a permanent change in the use of online health services such as telehealth and the importance of that. It really supports people in our regional and remote areas – they don’t have to travel and they have access to online healthcare. The benefits of this are just huge. 

“So, it’s ensuring that we maintain, or highlight, the types of regional connectivity infrastructure that’s required to keep promoting regional.”

Ms Madew said that infrastructure growth in regional areas actually helps to take the pressure off our cities. Not only growth in remote areas, but also in cities such as Wollongong and Newcastle, or Adelaide and Canberra, increased investment can further support Australia’s major cities. 

Social infrastructure – including housing demand

Investment in the social infrastructure sector is also critical in supporting the quality of life for all Australians as the country will continue to face new shocks and crises. 

Ms Alroe said the pandemic made it clear how much impact secure housing has on the capacity of communities to weather a crisis.

“There has been a 37 per cent increase in unmet social housing demand over the past decade, unmet demand for Aboriginal housing alone is expected to result in an undersupply of more than 12,500 homes by 2031.

“Appropriate housing underpins the improved outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and it’s a key target of the national agreement on Closing the Gap. 

“In this context, I’m pleased to announce that the New South Wales Social Housing Program is joining the Priority List this year, supporting the existing national initiative to improve remote housing quality and reduce overcrowding,” Ms Alroe said. 

Investing in public transport projects

Australians have had very different travel patterns over the last year due to COVID, from people working from home, or choosing to drive more, but Infrastructure Australia’s Chief of Infrastructure Prioritisation, Robin Jackson, said that IA believes this will only be a temporary impact and we still need to be planning for the future. 

“We definitely do think we need to continue to invest in these public transport networks. We’ve got a bit of a pause on migration, giving us that time to breathe and get the planning in place to get the right infrastructure. 

“It’s also a good opportunity to make better use of the assets we have already as well. On the Priority List this year we’re listing Level Crossing Removal Programs in three locations, and that’s really about getting more out of the assets we already have,” Mr Jackson said. 

What makes a successful proposal for the Priority List?

Mr Jackson and his team are the people behind the Priority List and he said that it’s a long process each year to put this vital document together. 

“We start the process around July and August with a call for submissions from all levels of government and a wide range of stakeholders. We move through the process of evaluating those to identify which are the most nationally important, which will have the most impact on the economy and on society as well,” Mr Jackson said. 

“We’re hopeful this list can help lock in some of the good things we’ve seen coming forward, the new ways people are choosing to interact, and where they live and work.” 

Mr Jackson also had some advice for infrastructure professionals and communities on how to put your proposal together to have the best chance of inclusion in IA’s Priority List.   

“The first place to look is to our website, as we provide a lot of information there on how to make a submission. We provide toolkits, checklists and templates, and things to help guide the kind of information that we need to see, and it’s really about the evidence base. They don’t need to be huge submissions, succinct and brief submissions we really appreciate,” he said. 

“It’s about finding that balance of the analysis and the evidence to show that there is a significant problem there. We provide some information as well about how we define national significance and we look at that as the size of impact on the economy and that should be around $30 million per annum or more.”

Enhancing the infrastructure we already have

Another key point discussed in the virtual event, and evident throughout the Priority List is what Ms Madew referred to as ‘sweating the asset’. 

“Infrastructure is a long-term investment and we have so many different forms of infrastructure around Australia – road, rail, ports, airports and so on. What you see this year is a number of initiatives and projects that are actually existing infrastructure looking to either enhance its connectivity, or enhance its capacity. 

“There are three level crossings, and also five ports [on the List aiming to] increase the capacity of ports around Australia. Newcastle Airport has been included, so that’s really looking at increasing the capacity of Newcastle Airport, It’s really important to understand it’s about spending our money wisely on those assets and it’s not just about new assets. It’s a great opportunity around our existing assets and how we can use them better and smarter,” Ms Madew said. 

Given the issues that infrastructure assets have faced and are continuing to, including drought, flood, bushfires, then COVID, it is certainly a challenging time for the industry to not only deal with current demand but plan for the future, but given the diversity of the projects identified in this year’s Priority List, it’s also an exciting time ahead for opportunities and investments. 

“We are at a crossroads, with abundant opportunities to deliver infrastructure that responds to community needs. The Priority List with its evidence-based proposals and a key focus on community outcome is a critical place to start,” Ms Alroe said. 

View the entire 2021 Infrastructure Priority List here or watch the 2021 Infrastructure Priority List Virtual Launch Event on-demand here

 

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