There aren’t many industries that haven’t been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Infrastructure projects in Australia have certainly been affected, with a new Infrastructure Partnerships Australia report noting a “slimmed down” pipeline of projects. According to the analysis, the value of major projects approved in the first eight months of the year dropped to $6.7 billion from $27.1 billion over the same period in 2019. And the impact of COVID-19 on infrastructure could be felt for years to come.
Not long ago, conversations about infrastructure in Australia focused on Australia’s projected population growth. Today, some analysts are busily revising their predictions.
It’s clear that there is nothing normal about the new normal of infrastructure. However, with new circumstances come new opportunities, which is why we need to rethink infrastructure in Australia in order to thrive in a COVID-19 climate and deliver solutions that benefit the community.
Everything has changed — for now
Over the last eight months, so much of what we took for granted has been turned on its head. The ways in which we communicate, conduct business, entertain and socialise have all changed in response to COVID-19. People are working from home, students have been learning remotely, concerts and events are on hold, travel has been impacted and more people are turning to e-commerce in all its forms.
With international travel off the agenda for the moment, airlines have grounded planes and stood down staff, while airports around Australia are experiencing sharp declines in revenue. The suggestion of a trans-Tasman travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand offered a glimmer of hope for the aviation industry, but recent COVID-19 outbreaks in Melbourne and Auckland have complicated those plans.
Taken together, these changes have had a considerable impact on infrastructure in Australia. Any reduction in people flows suggests less of a need for the big ticket infrastructure projects that keep people moving, such as airports, roads and train lines. Some commentators, including Marion Terrill who heads up the transport and cities program at the Grattan Institute, are recommending that NSW rethink some $40 billion worth of city-shaping mega projects scheduled to commence over the next few years. A recent Sydney Morning Herald article cites research which states that alternative infrastructure projects spread across the state, as well as targeted upgrades to existing infrastructure, could do more to boost productivity and welfare than some mega projects.
Our recent behaviour changes, combined with the economic impacts of the pandemic, have put considerable pressure on governments and infrastructure owners to rethink the direction of infrastructure Down Under.
Where to now? Rethinking infrastructure in Australia
Clearly, the changes to the ways we live and work will have significant implications for our industry. For one thing, securing the money to fund some infrastructure projects could be a challenge in the short term. So far, state and federal governments have been preoccupied with keeping the pandemic under control and the economy ticking along, both of which have required massive injections of government stimulus into the economy. What’s more, some major infrastructure players have seen significant dips in revenue in response to our new commuting habits.
For example, the toll road giant Transurban saw its share price drop by a third between February and March, and traffic on its roads dip 50 percent in April. By June, traffic was back to 90 percent of 2019 levels according to the company, but as we’ve seen over the course of the pandemic, no one knows exactly what’s around the corner.
However, it is important to remember that funding infrastructure projects in Australia has never been easy. What matters now is ensuring that governments, financial institutions and project owners come together to consider how things have changed and the impact of COVID-19 on infrastructure.
Let’s look at work. Roy Morgan research from June revealed that 4.3 million Australians, or 32% of the workforce, have been working from home throughout the pandemic. Many expect the trend to continue. Professor John Buchanan, the head of business analytics at the Sydney Business School, told the ABC in August that there are strong incentives for businesses to keep workers at home. “Employers are looking to cut costs,” he said. If this continues, it’s likely that office buildings could become ‘hubs’ that workers visit occasionally rather than every day.
Education is another area that has been hit hard by the pandemic. With fees from international students accounting for much of the sector’s revenues, universities around the country are facing uncertain times and some are putting infrastructure projects on hold. With tertiary sector infrastructure projects worth $1.47 billion in 2017, the slowdown in that area will be felt for some time.
Are we looking to survive or thrive?
With so much uncertainty in the air at the moment, it’s time for the industry to take stock, consider the new normal of infrastructure, and plan a way forward that works for the industry and for the community. Any sensible plan will likely involve the re-prioritisation of certain projects in the short-to-medium term while simultaneously ensuring that we stay focused on those bigger, city-shaping infrastructure projects.
The NSW government, for one, is on board with this kind of approach to the future of infrastructure. In June, Treasurer Dominic Perrottet acknowledged that, “There’s now a new normal and we need to be agile and recalibrate our thinking to make sure the NSW economy is in the best position going through, and coming out of the pandemic.” Part of that involves fast tracking “shovel-ready” projects. At Antoun, we also see an opportunity to tackle the maintenance backlog currently affecting some of the country’s major infrastructure assets.
The infrastructure maintenance backlog in Australia is currently affecting everything from energy to transport and water. By re-calibrating and focusing on those infrastructure assets that are suffering under the strains imposed by age, population growth and climate change, we can maintain the viability of some of our most critical infrastructure, promote economic growth and keep the community safe.
How Antoun can help
As a capable and experienced operator, Antoun is well positioned to help infrastructure owners maintain their assets and adapt to the new normal of infrastructure. Just last year, we completed the concrete slab replacement at Melbourne International Airport, a world first in terms of scale and complexity, and a project that benefited from our cost and time-efficient E6 Methodology.
We offer a range of products to help manage costs and increase the longevity of infrastructure.
Our FastPatch products are particularly attractive when budgets are tight. FastPatch is a flexible polymer repair system that bonds quickly to a variety of surfaces, reducing your return-to-service time while increasing service life.
Belitic Calcium Sulfoaluminate (BSCA) cement has been used on major road, airport and other civil construction projects for many years. Antoun’s BSCA cement sets quickly and exhibits minimal shrinkage.
While the future of infrastructure in Australia remains to be seen, at Antoun we believe that a sensible consensus is emerging. With targeted investment in new infrastructure projects, a concerted effort to address the maintenance backlog currently affecting some of our most highly utilised infrastructure, and a focus on the existing pipeline of major projects, we will be able to weather the COVID-19 storm and improve infrastructure in Australia for generations to come.
If you need a trusted partner on your next infrastructure project, get in touch with Antoun today.