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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. 

5. Acknowledging that cross-border transport infrastructure is ultimately a matter of priority

Priorities of transport infrastructure and cross-border transport infrastructure depend on political priorities, which may be influenced of strategic or tactic considerations or issues of timing, and on what is considered to be effective management of economic resources. The National Transport Plans show that the national perspective is the main priority in all the Nordic countries. In the interviews, we came across several explanations as to why cross-border transport infrastructure is not accorded higher priority in the National Plans. 
One of the obstacles relates to the fact that insufficient consideration is given to cross-border effects, network impacts and externalities at the Nordic level. This means that the full cost of the cross-border investment is considered, but the benefits on both sides of the national border are not always given due weight. Furthermore, additional impacts – such as impacts on the labour market and property market, as well as other long-term effects of the investments – are usually only partly included in the analyses or not included at all.
“Stockholm-Oslo is more than a cross-border link. It deals with regional development, with the potential for increased cooperation between Norway and Sweden and with reducing CO2 emissions from aviation traffic.”
“The success in Barents comes when several countries lobby for the same project. Then we can get the projects into the National Transport Plan.”
A second issue concerns the strong focus on roads and railways in the National Transport Plans. Freight and passenger flows generated by harbours, cross-border ferry lines and aviation are not included in the planning processes in the same way as road and rail transport. The players involved in sea transport and aviation often represent other stakeholders, such as municipalities, municipal or regional companies or private stakeholders, that are usually not engaged in long-term transport infrastructure planning in the same way as the stakeholders representing road and rail transport. That may reflect the long-lasting and strong involvement of the state in agencies for the operation and maintenance of roads, rail transport and national airports. As a result, network effects, externalities and other impacts from those modes of transport have not been taken into consideration to the same extent in the National Transport Plans. 
A third issue concerns the situation in which national stakeholders have a positive attitude towards investment in cross-border transport infrastructure, but there is disagreement among local and regional stakeholders as to where the new route should be located. This challenge can be seen in the case of Denmark and Sweden, where three alternative routes – with different benefits – to support the Öresund Bridge link have been put up for debate. Three alternative routes have likewise been proposed for the Stockholm-Oslo link. In the case of the Kvarken Strait, regions and municipalities have supported different and sometimes competing ferry lines. It is likely that a lack of consensus among the local and regional stakeholders involved impacts negatively on national decision-makers’ leeway and interest in taking action.

6. Involving regional and other stakeholders in cross-border transport infrastructure planning

Besides national government policymakers, regional stakeholders play a significant role in cross-border transport infrastructure planning. The regional development strategies place the development of the region in the framework of a wider territorial context. If the region is situated in proximity to a national border, that often also involves a trans-national context. Local and regional stakeholders are usually also involved in the operation and management of local and regional transport. Finally, they are also frequently consulted or otherwise involved as stakeholders in national transport infrastructure planning. 
In some cases, the responsible government level is not mirrored by the same level of government on the other side of the border. For example, in the Öresund region, while the national government authorities on both sides of the strait are responsible for railway planning, it is the regional level of government that is responsible for regional railway traffic on the Swedish side. However, the equivalent task is the responsibility of the national government on the Danish side. This “mismatch” sometimes complicates relations. 
“Transport infrastructure planning in Sweden is very hierarchical and formal. In Finland the local parliamentarians participate in the work and getting in contact with national level decision-makers is much easier.” 
“Regional cooperation is key to identifying regional demand, bottle necks and challenges. Air, port and freight transport is driven by market logic, and we are involved in special arenas where we work with those.”
“In the cross-border regions we can see the actual effects of cross-border traffic, the flows of trade and the importance of those working smoothly. But I also see great potential for development.” 
In the case studies, several regional or interregional players are involved in transport infrastructure planning. In the case of the Helsingborg-Helsingør link, those include for example Region Skåne, Region Hovedstaden, the Greater Copenhagen cross-border organisation and the “HH-gruppen" lobby organisation. Along the Stockholm-Oslo link we find several regions, larger territorial organisations such as Osloregionen (Oslo Region Alliance), the cross-border organisation Värmland-Östfold and special-purpose and lobby organisations, such as “Stockholm-Oslo 2.55” and “Oslo-Stockholm under tre timer”. The interviews indicate that involving different types of players may be beneficial to reaching out widely to shape public opinion and accessing various policymakers. 
The third case study, stretching from Mo i Rana in Norway via Umeå in Sweden to Vaasa in Finland, involves long distances as well as several modes of transport. The players are more scattered and the whole link also seems to be less well-coordinated among the national and regional players concerned. There are also several cross-border associations involved, such as the Blue Highway Association, Kvarken Council EGTC and MidtSkandia, and cross-border infrastructure facilities. For example, the Kvarken ports and Wasaline ferry which are co-owned by Vaasa and Umeå.
“I am responsible for the railway. After that, it is port and sea transport, and we are no longer involved. We have little coordination with what is happening on the other side of the border.”
“The Ore connection is probably the strongest cross-border collaboration we have where we have formalised the cooperation.” 
In this northern case study, we also find different – and stronger – national government involvement than in the other case studies. In the northern parts of the Nordic Region, there are several national, EU/international and cross-border organisations that overlap territorially. One of them is the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, where the foreign ministers from Finland, Norway and Sweden (and previously also Russia) are represented along with the European Commission. The Steering Committee for the Barents Euro-Arctic Transport Area (BEATA) involves the transport ministers and representatives from the regional councils (except for Sweden, where the regions are represented by the County Administrative Boards).
The Joint Barents Transport plan, which was updated in 2019, includes proposals for the development of transport routes in the area and was confirmed in a joint declaration in 2021 as an important pillar for cooperation and achieving results. Furthermore, the interviews show that collaboration to manage and develop long-existing cross-border road and rail connections, e.g. the Iron ore/Ofoten line between Sweden and Norway, and bridges and border crossings between Sweden and Finland, are facilitated not only by formal cooperation, but also by personal and informal relations that some individuals have developed over the years while solving specific tasks related to obstacles to existing routes and traffic.
The involvement of regions and cross-border organisations and the interplay between different levels of government were described in the previous NORDINFRA report (Lundgren et al. 2022). This is further illustrated in our case study interviews, which show that regional and cross-border regional collaboration comes in many forms, including involvement of multiple levels of government, e.g. Barents Euro-Arctic Council, “Oslo-Stockholm under tre timer” with the involvement of public and private sector players, or the formalisation of Kvarken Council EGTC. The interviewees pointed out that different organisational forms have various advantages and disadvantages.
“For processes that require a long-term commitment, a company represents a commitment where the shareholders have a responsibility for the company.” 
“This [the demand for development of infrastructure] is about economic dynamics where the driving forces are found in the regional and local perspectives, not the national perspective.” 

7. Learning the “craftsmanship” of cooperation in cross-border transport infrastructure planning

As mentioned earlier, transport infrastructure planning per se is a highly complex area which involves many players and stakeholders. Cross-border transport infrastructure involves even more stakeholders, as well as other dimensions, which are important to consider. These dimensions may be of a formal character, such as different national laws, regulations, rules and assignments, but can also involve international diplomacy. They may also be of a more informal character, e.g. different planning or decision-making procedures, routines and practices in the organisations that are to collaborate. Working in this context involves a learning process. Ultimately it is not organisations that collaborate (even though that is often how it is described), but people. 
This means that individuals who are involved in cross-border collaboration come to possess special and often tacit knowledge and personal experiences which can help facilitate smoother and more efficient work. We can describe this tacit knowledge as the “craftsmanship” of planning cross-border infrastructure and of improving facilities for transportation and its operation. In our interviews, the important role of interpersonal relations and cross-national knowledge and skills were mentioned several times.
“Several of our contacts have studied here and many contacts are personal contacts. When people retire, finding new contacts always poses a problem.” 
“Contacts are like a set of informal opportunities. When people change job or move, these may be lost and formal contacts between organisations become more important.” 
In relation to collaboration, several of the interviews also addressed the question of when collaboration works best and the extent of the collaboration. While most of the interviewees were keen for more cooperation, two of our interviewees representing national government stakeholders were less inclined.
“It is when we have common interests that cooperation works best, and it is also important to build personal relations across the border.” 
“Cooperation works well as it is today. More cooperation is an issue of priority.” 
Several of the interviewees pointed out that it is through collaboration in projects that knowledge and interpersonal relationships are built. Others suggested that cooperation may spread from one area to another. 
Although most of the interviewees expressed frustration with the lack of interest in investments in cross-border transport infrastructure and the need for better coordination between national level authorities, most seemed to be fairly satisfied with the regional and cross-border arenas and platforms for collaboration at hand. However, there was one exception to that: the lack of a political Nordic arena for cross-border transport infrastructure issues. This will be discussed in further detail in the next section. Several interviewees also highlighted that Nordic and European collaboration can be expected to increase in the future due to the changing geopolitical order caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 
“The world around us is changing. I think it will be even more important to cooperate across borders in the Nordics, both in infrastructure and contingency planning.”
“The national ministerial level needs to talk to each other and formalise their cooperation. And then we need them to talk to us in the cross-border regions.” 
“The most important thing is the collaboration between ministers. That they give a clear mandate to their ministries. A Nordic Council of Ministers for Transport, and a Nordic TEN-T network where urban nodes are given a clear status.”