Photo: Nicolai Bernsten, unsplash.com
Cross-border transport infrastructure planning – experiences drawn from case studies
In our first report (Cross-border transport infrastructure planning in the Nordic Region – An introduction), we identified several obstacles to cross-border transport infrastructure planning found in the relevant literature. These are to a large extent related to different formal structures and to challenges of governance, such as different political decision-making structures, different ways of calculating costs and benefits, different financing models and different legal and administrative frameworks.
In this section, we will examine and discuss seven key challenges for cross-border transport infrastructure planning brought up in our case study interviews which relate both to formal structures and informal rules, norms and practices. In the following section we will investigate the opportunities for improvement which were raised in the interviews conducted.
1. Recognising the complexity of cross-border transport infrastructure planning
The presence of the borders is immediately obvious and yet is often overlooked. Naturally borders matter a great deal. Some of the interviewees posed the rhetorical question: “Why should it be more difficult to plan across the border?” This a reasonable question to ask. However, the case studies show that it is much more complicated to plan international cross-border transport infrastructure than intranational infrastructure.
“If it wasn’t for the national border, the infrastructure would have been there a long time ago.”
There are numerous reasons for this. Firstly, nation states matter. Each country has its own National Transport Plan. To some extent those plans take a wider view beyond the national borders, but the main focus is on planning within the country concerned. Secondly, each individual country has developed its own organisational structure, division of responsibilities and decision-making structures. Those are laid down in laws and regulations and are furthermore embedded in routines and practices.
“Both countries [Sweden and Denmark] are most concerned with national transport infrastructure. Cross-border transport infrastructure always comes second. Everyone can see the problem with the ticketing system, where national ticketing problems are solved first. That is probably how it works in both Denmark and Sweden.”
“We have different roles and assignments. We need to learn how they work in other countries.”
“The public administration models are different in the different countries. The Swedish Transport Administration has large autonomy compared to Denmark.”
In general, language seems to be a minor obstacle in relations between the countries in question. Between Sweden, Norway and Denmark, the Scandinavian languages can be fairly well understood. However, in relation to Finland, communication with non-Scandinavian speaking Finns sometimes poses a problem. While resorting to English is an option, it may also hamper the quality of the interaction due to limited vocabulary. Despite cultural differences between the countries, these were not referred to as major barriers to interaction. According to the interviewees involved in cross-border transport infrastructure planning and/or projects, it tends to be lack of familiarity with the organisational structures across the border that sometimes makes it difficult to liaise. The interviewees from all our case studies reported generally good or even very good cross-border collaboration between the stakeholders, once those obstacles had been overcome.
“We work fairly well together across the Nordic borders, but there is great potential for improved collaboration.”
One cultural difference experienced and raised by several of the interviewees relates to the degree of formality applied to matters such as planning and the decision-making process. For example, according to the interviewees, Sweden and Finland tend to take a more formal approach to written communication than in Norway. Decision-making was reported to be quicker in Norway than in Sweden. Swedes were perceived to be more informal in meetings than Danes, while Norwegians were reported to be more prone to reconsider previous decisions than Swedes. Both Norwegian and Danish interviewees perceived that the Swedish Transport Administration had a wider role and mandate in relation to the relevant ministry than the equivalent authorities in Norway and Denmark. Differences with regard to how decisions are made and anchored within the organisation or among partners were noted as obstacles by the interviewees. That accords with previous knowledge and literature (see e.g. Lundgren et al. 2022).
“We have worked very well together with surprisingly few conflicts.”
2. Understanding that transport infrastructure planning at the national government level plays a key role
In all of the Nordic countries examined, transport infrastructure planning takes place at several levels of government. For example, the National Transport Plans are deliberated on by national-level decision-makers; the regions and local authorities are involved in transport infrastructure planning and public transportation; and the EU supports the development of Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T) and regional development through its transport and regional policy.
When it comes to cross-border transport infrastructure planning, we find that all these levels of government are involved and contribute within their respective area of responsibility. However, none of them is explicitly responsible for planning cross-border transport infrastructure. One interviewee noted that “cross-border commuters are not voters”, meaning that no political body is directly responsible for cross-border infrastructure.
With regard to the question of how cross-border transport infrastructure planning can be improved, the case study interviewees almost unanimously identified the government at national level and its agencies as playing the key role.
“I think we have very good cooperation in HH and Greater Copenhagen and we want to cooperate. That is not the problem. Nor are language or culture. The problem is that the national [level perspective] counts more, especially concerning the economy.”
“The Barents cooperation showed that it is important to work with the whole corridor, to identify demand and then also include it in the National Transport Plans.”
In all Nordic countries, the national government is responsible for conducting national planning of transport infrastructure, including large investments in the national transport networks. This means that the national governments play a key role in transport infrastructure planning in general and also in cross-border transport infrastructure planning. The extent to which national politicians – besides the responsible minister– are involved in advocating individual transport infrastructure projects depends on the political system in the respective countries. In Finland, for example, Members of Parliament at the national level are elected from time to time to top positions at the regional and local levels, while that is not a practice in for example Sweden.
“Cooperation at the ministerial level between the Nordic countries would signal to everyone in the sector how important it is.”
3. Addressing the lack of clear assignments/mandates to perform cross-border transport infrastructure planning
Both interviewees representing national transport infrastructure authorities and interviewees from local and regional stakeholders indicated that a common response from national transport authorities when asked to investigate cross-border transport infrastructure or to complement an ongoing study was: “we don’t have this assignment”.
Despite both similarities and differences between the Nordic countries as regards how transport policy is organised at the national level – for example, the organisational structure in Denmark and Norway suggests that the transport authorities work more closely with the ministry than, say, in Sweden – the need for clear and explicit mandates and assignments to be issued by the national government with regard to cross-border collaboration seems to be a common feature among the countries.
“We implement the policies that we have been assigned to implement. We have a mandate to engage in dialogue, collect information and report, but when it comes to cooperation with other countries, we need a clear mandate.”
“If we don’t have an assignment, we cannot prioritise. There must be a demand. If there is a couple of years’ difference in the planning periods, it doesn’t matter so much.”
“The main problem arises when the national transport authorities don’t have the assignment to cooperate.”
The voiced need for explicit mandates demonstrates that policymaking in transport infrastructure at the level of national government takes place in large, hierarchical organisations where the civil servants have restricted mandates to work with specific regions or on specific transport infrastructure projects.
The interviews furthermore show that although the interviewees are very knowledgeable about their own region or transport infrastructure project, they have only limited insight into Nordic transport infrastructure planning overall. By contrast, civil servants from regional and cross-border organisations usually have wider roles which include framing the development of their region into a wider territorial context. The voiced need for clear assignments and mandates is linked to the role played by formal and informal rules. Formal rules relate to regulations and instructions, while informal rules relate to culture, norms and practice. Both types come with incentives and sanctions. In practice, this means that there are many incentives for civil servants to “stick to the rules”.
4. Sharing information and knowledge on transport infrastructure planning in a systematic way
Transport infrastructure planning is complex and cross-border transport infrastructure planning is even more complex. Making informed decisions and taking action requires coordination and well-developed information channels, horizontally and vertically, as well as internally and externally. This, however, does not always seem to be the case. Several of the interviewees working for the national governments and their transport authorities reported a lack of knowledge about the arenas and forums in which discussions and deliberations about cross-border transport infrastructure priorities and strategies actually take place.
“I think there is cooperation at ministerial level between the Nordic countries, that they meet in various fora?”
“In the region we don’t have so much contact with the EU. That is taken care of by people at the head office.”
Given that civil servants in national government and transport agencies are part of a large organisation with hierarchical structures and also seems to lack knowledge of the bigger picture, it is not surprising that they stick to the formal mandate and the precise assignment that they have been given, rather than taking a more proactive approach. That makes shared information and analyses of for example transport flows and impact analyses even more important.
“There are no joint models for calculation, planning etc. Even if the planning processes are similar, they are not the same.”
“There are simply no transport models that cross the national borders.”
Although many national analyses on cross-border transport infrastructure projects have been conducted, acceptance of those analyses by the neighbouring country has sometimes proven difficult. This is probably also one of the reasons why both the HH and Stockholm-Oslo analyses were performed jointly. The representatives in the interviews underlined the importance of having the same assignment and time frame in order to facilitate the development of cross-border joint analyses. However, in the case of HH, although the analysis was conducted as a joint project, the findings have been interpreted differently in Denmark and Sweden in some respects.
“We need to be better at sharing knowledge and information, to have the same perception of reality as regards transport infrastructure and a forum where we can discuss those issues.”
In the case of HH, interviewees from both sides of the Öresund Strait mentioned both good collaboration and a lack of trust related to the sharing of information, selection of data and being explicit about national/regional priorities. Lack of trust, however, was not raised in the other case studies, even though it was acknowledged that the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent restrictions on borders had left their mark on the lively cross-border collaboration between the Nordic countries. As in all types of relations and negotiations, trust and informal relations are likely to influence collaboration and decision-making.