Challenges and opportunities in evaluating sustainable infrastructure
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Considering the importance of investments in infrastructure with their high financing costs, opportunity costs and longterm legacy, it is critical to determine which projects among their alternatives provide the best value and, if and how a good project can be made better. The challenge in making the right investment is ever more difficult when attempting to achieve sustainability because sustainability embodies long-run aspirations across sectors, while projects are typically measured relative to direct, short-term impacts that primarily affect a relatively small part of a region or population. Much effort has been undertaken to develop sustainable infrastructure evaluation frameworks by national and international public agencies and non-governmental organizations alike, but they are not always adequately applied to evaluate projects to achieve sustainability goals. This paper takes a step back from current discussions about sustainable infrastructure and evaluation frameworks to ask whether there is a better way to evaluate projects. We raise questions about current approaches to identify areas for improving strategies in planning, designing and financing infrastructure to more effectively meet sustainability goals. Our interest is to help decision makers efficiently and effectively make the best investment choices. To this end, we lay groundwork for an evaluation framework that extends beyond project-level benefit-cost analyses to account for a broader context and goals. A key part of this framework is the development of a clear and concise set of project outcome indicators that are aligned with a macro-scale concept of sustainability. The intended audience for this paper includes public planning and implementing agencies, as well as the public and private financing community who are wrestling with the concept of sustainability and the influence that infrastructure investments can have on long-run outcomes. We discuss several important activities that would need to be undertaken to implement an improved sustainable infrastructure evaluation process. Finally, we conclude with a series of next steps, including research and data collection that would be required for implementation.