The contribution of infrastructures to development

There are three fundamental criteria for evaluating the impact, at the different territorial scales, of the creation of a new infrastructure: focusing on the long-term result, on the quality and on the function the great work will have, can help in forming more objective evaluations.

There has been much debate on the role that infrastructures are able to have in regional development. But all too often the debate is likely to address the issue solely in terms of “principle”. Often those who deny this contribution argue that infrastructures only have an effect (Keynesian) on government spending, an effect that would be exhausted in the short to medium term of their construction and it would therefore be preferable to replace them with other items of the same amount, perhaps able to meet other, more pressing needs (always in the short term) such as - in general - the cost of the welfare state. Another argument, frequently used to negate the importance of infrastructure policies and to support their inadvisability, is based on the negative environmental externalities that they may generate in the local contexts in which the infrastructure (precisely) is located, (port, airport, railway station, highway toll booth, power plant) or those that are crossed by network infrastructures (stretches of freeways and railways). Finally, to the detriment of investments in infrastructures, we cite the empirical measurements concerning the lack of positive statistical linkages (correlations) with the local development in “cases”, while existing, have nevertheless been chosen to support the negative theory, and not always those that are relevant or comparable. These arguments cannot be dismissed in a superficial way. Some of them have a solid basis and it would be wrong to underestimate the underlying interests, especially when the infrastructures in question are poorly designed, made irregardless of serious environmental concerns and managed only for the benefit of special interests.

However, to get a good picture of the assessment of the effects of the infrastructures on the economic and social development, it is necessary to change the paradigms and criteria. There are three matters that should inspire a positive judgment on the appropriateness of a serious and far-sighted infrastructure policy: the first concerns the time span in which to evaluate its effects; the second concerns the quality of the infrastructures; the third, and last, concerns the different territorial scales at which the infrastructure development is aimed. 1. The time span of the evaluations. It is known that an infrastructure – whether it be a road, a railway or an airport, to remain in the sphere of transport and mobility (but the same reasoning applies to those related to energy or telecommunications) produces effects in the long to very long term. By way of example, the assessment of the role played by the great Roman roads in connecting Europe today can’t help but have a secular dimension; likewise for the assessment of the role of the Alpine passes and tunnels. Similarly, if the ports and airports had not been conceived, in their time, as tools to link several continents around the world, we would never have come to allow for the extraordinary development of trade and to create the intense network of international relationships that these facilities permit today. The short-term perspective would have penalized all this, and even marginalized development in many parts of the emerging world. 2. The quality of the infrastructure. It is equally certain that a very high quality of the infrastructure is an essential condition for it to last over time, albeit long or very long. A good design is crucial so that maintenance costs do not become unsustainable; that the adjustment of the capacity of the infrastructure be done in order to meet the growing demand for mobility (related to trade, the flow of tourism, and social relations); that the mandatory requirement of security - also growing constantly - is not put into question or achieved at ballooning costs.

The quality of an infrastructure - in the broad sense mentioned - is therefore an essential condition for its evaluation so that a far-sighted infrastructure policy can be carried out, with the support of techniques and technologies that have gradually become available. It is, moreover, the foundation of any argument in order for development to be sustainable, that is to say, compatible with the increasing demands of social, economic and environmental changes. 3) The relevance of the different territorial scales of development for which the infrastructure has been designed. The third evaluation criterion for the positivity of the infrastructure in contributing to the development concerns the fact that many infrastructure investments are capable of serving different objectives of development that are not homogeneous or, worse, approved. This means that the infrastructures cannot all be treated in the same way: there are many different kinds of infrastructures connecting different locations which are very far apart or those that are very close; those dealing with a rural context are different from those of the large urban agglomerations or from those in deserted or sparsely populated areas; the infrastructures that are “great works” are different from those of a smaller size.

Therefore the functions of infrastructures are different because the service for the mobility they render, once they have been carried out, is different: they improve accessibility to places that were previously unreachable; they allow for finding new customers and suppliers and thus, presumably, the best choices for enterprises, and also reduce transportation costs, thereby increasing local competitiveness; they allow for taking into consideration new and more attractive locations, both for production activities and for residential purposes. This variety of infrastructure functions shows the great value they have when the individual sections are linked together in a large network that is able - through various alternative routes - to exponentially multiply the origins and destinations of mobility. In this sense, a territory with good infrastructures is a great tool that provides greater freedom for its citizens and businesses, enabling them to choose from numerous and more convenient options. In the end, an infrastructure that is well-designed and of good quality allows any territory - small or large, central or peripheral, more or less delicate from a business perspective - to take its place with dignity upon the world stage, where the local is combined with the global and the population of any area can be and feel like the protagonist of their own development and their potentiality.

(Abstract from Autostrade per l'Italia's Magazine "Agorà")