NorthConnex

Overview

The processes used to assess NorthConnex adequately considered value for money for taxpayers.This report also found that the impact of tolling concessions on road users and the motorway network was consistent with policy objectives described in the 2012 NSW Long Term Transport Master Plan.

1. Executive Summary

Foreword

On 12 May 2017, in accordance with Section 38C(2) of the Public Finance and Audit Act 1983, the Audit Office provided the final report for this audit to the heads of the five audited agencies, their responsible Ministers and the NSW Treasurer.

I note that on 18 May 2017, Portfolio Committee No.2 – Health and Community Services Inquiry into Road Tolling received evidence regarding the potential for a financial contribution from Roads and Maritime Services if a certain percentage of heavy vehicles continue to use Pennant Hills Road.

Subsequently, the issue of compensation payments to the NorthConnex operators has been the subject of public interest.

As part of my audit, I examined how the assessment of the NorthConnex funding model ensured value for money for NSW taxpayers. My report notes the published contract summary for NorthConnex states that:

  • Roads and Maritime Services will implement regulatory measures with respect to heavy vehicles travelling on Pennant Hills Road
  • there are specific conditions where Roads and Maritime Services must provide compensation to the proponents if an agreed percentage of certain heavy vehicles continue to use Pennant Hills Road.

I consider the matters of public interest referred to above were adequately addressed on 22 May 2017 at the public hearing for the Inquiry into Road Tolling. The transcript from this hearing is available on the NSW Parliament website.

Margaret Crawford
Auditor-General of NSW
June 2017

Executive summary

NorthConnex is a nine-kilometre tolled motorway tunnel between the M1 Pacific motorway at Wahroonga and the M2 Hills motorway at West Pennant Hills. Major construction work commenced in February 2015 and the tunnel is expected to open to traffic in late 2019.

In March 2012, the M7 shareholders (also referred to as the proponents) submitted an unsolicited proposal for NorthConnex to the NSW Government. The proponents, led by Transurban, include the Queensland Investment Corporation and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.

A steering committee, with representatives from the Department of Premier and Cabinet, NSW Treasury, Infrastructure NSW, Transport for NSW and Roads and Maritime Services, as well as an independent member, assessed the proposal in accordance with the ‘Unsolicited Proposals - Guide for Submission and Assessment’ (the Unsolicited Proposals Guide). The

Unsolicited Proposals Guide sets out a three-stage assessment process:

  1. Initial Submission and Strategic Assessment — A comprehensive initial assessment to identify any potential benefit to the NSW Government of further consideration and development with the proponent
  2. Detailed proposal — The NSW Government and proponent work collaboratively to develop and assess a detailed proposal
  3. Negotiation of final binding offer — Outstanding issues are finalised with a view to entering a binding agreement should the NSW Government accept the final offer.

As this was a Public Private Partnership (PPP) proposal, the steering committee also assessed the proposal against the National and NSW PPP Guidelines.

This audit assessed whether the process used to determine the NorthConnex funding model adequately considered value for money for taxpayers and road users. In making this assessment, we answered the following questions:

  1. How did the assessment of the NorthConnex funding model ensure value for money for NSW taxpayers?
  2. Did the assessment adequately consider the overall impact of tolling arrangements to road users and the community?

More details on the audit scope and focus are in Appendix three.

Conclusion

The processes used to assess NorthConnex adequately considered value for money for taxpayers and road users within the NSW Government’s stated policy objectives. These processes included assessing the proposal against the costs and benefits of the NSW Government fully funding the project; adding a competitive tender process for the design and construction components; and using independent cost estimation and traffic modelling. The NorthConnex proposal met a need identified by the NSW Government. By these measures, the NorthConnex agreement represented value for money for the NSW Government.  

The steering committee used sufficiently robust and independently verified processes to determine the initial scope and cost for the project. The use of independent traffic modelling represented the best available assessment, given the complexities of the network being modelled and the available traffic data. The impact of tolling concessions on road users and the motorway network were consistent with policy objectives described in the 2012 NSW Long Term Transport Master Plan. The steering committee adequately considered the cumulative impact of tolling changes across the term of the agreement.

The audit identified two areas where there were deficiencies. The current Unsolicited Proposals Guide is not clear on the timing of key assurance stages. Our view is that a business case gateway review would be more effective at providing risk assurance if it were completed during the development of a detailed proposal in stage 2. Additionally, record keeping for this project did not meet the standards for government record keeping. For example, there is insufficient documentation showing that the steering committee endorsed the management plan for a declared potential conflict of interest. Given the risks associated with unsolicited proposals, it is critical for NSW Government participants to keep complete and accurate records of their activities and decisions.

Assessment processes complied with established guidelines

The steering committee, chaired by the Department of Premier and Cabinet, was responsible for assessing and evaluating the proposal, managing communications with the proponents, and advising the NSW Government.

The unsolicited proposal assessment process involved considerable multi-agency stakeholder involvement and input. The steering committee met monthly throughout the proposal assessment and evaluation process. The committee established an assessment panel and technical, commercial and representative teams.

In accordance with stage 2 of the Unsolicited Proposals Guide, the documentation we reviewed indicated a high level of collaboration between relevant NSW Government agencies and the proponents under the guidance of the steering committee.

In line with the requirements of the Unsolicited Proposals Guide, the steering committee considered value for money as a key assessment criterion. We found that the steering committee used multiple processes to assess the NorthConnex proposal which adequately considered value for money for taxpayers and road users within the NSW Government’s stated policy objectives. These processes included:

  • assessing the NorthConnex proposal against the costs and benefits of the NSW Government fully funding the project (referred to as the public sector comparator)
  • developing a business case which demonstrated a positive cost benefit ratio (noting that a business case is not a requirement of the Unsolicited Proposals Guide)
  • adding a competitive tender process for the design and construction components
  • using independent cost estimation and traffic modelling
  • introducing a cap on the NSW Government’s contribution.


The steering committee also ensured that the proposal had received planning approval and that it met other government requirements, such as completing a public interest evaluation report which is required by the NSW PPP Guidelines.

The steering committee prepared governance plans which addressed probity requirements, and the probity advisor for the proposal completed probity reports for stages 2 and 3. An issue related to the incomplete documentation for the management of a declared potential conflict of interest is described later in this report.

The NorthConnex proposal met a compelling need for the NSW Government, that RMS had identified many years before the unsolicited proposal was received. However, previous assessments demonstrated that the NSW Government was unable to independently fund the project.

Two key assurance steps were not completed in a timely manner

The decision to proceed from detailed proposal (stage 2) to negotiating the final binding offer (stage 3) was not informed by a business case gateway review or stage 2 probity report. The steering committee completed these key assurance steps after the NSW Government announced the decision to proceed to stage 3.

While there is no specific guidance in the Unsolicited Proposals Guide or the NSW PPP guidelines on when a business case gateway review should be completed, our view is that a business case gateway review would be more effective at providing risk assurance if it were completed during stage 2 and before commencement of the procurement phase in stage 3. An expert panel reviewed the draft business case in February 2014, after stage 2 was completed in May 2013. As a result, the gateway review did not inform the development of the project cost or scope, as the commercial terms had been negotiated as part of stage 2.

The probity advisor reviewed probity related content in the stage 2 assessment report in May 2013. Although the probity advisor confirmed that there were no unresolved probity concerns/issues and that a draft probity report had been prepared, the stage 2 probity report was not finalised until November 2013, six months after the NSW Government announced that it had reached an in-principle agreement with the proponents and completed the stage 2 assessment process in May 2013.

The Department of Premier and Cabinet has provided a draft update to the Unsolicited Proposals Guide. We note that this draft provides clarity on when these assurance steps should be completed for future unsolicited proposals.

Record keeping did not fully comply with legislation or the governance plan

Government agencies are required to keep documentation in accordance with the State Records Act 1998 and the NSW Government Standard on Records Management. By their nature, unsolicited proposals lack transparency and the benefit of competition in the procurement process. This makes it more critical for NSW Government participants involved in the assessment of unsolicited proposals to keep complete and accurate records of their activities and decisions.

In addition, the governance plans for stages 2 and 3 state ‘Records of the proposal and evaluation process must be maintained in order to allow for independent audit and review. The maintenance of appropriate records increases the accountability and transparency of the process’.

Agencies were unable to provide key documentation requested as part of the audit. With the exception of the steering committee, record keeping for groups such as the assessment panel, the technical team, commercial team and representative team did not meet the standards for government record keeping. This was due to a lack of clarity regarding the roles and responsibilities for record keeping, including what should have been recorded during the assessment of the NorthConnex proposal and who was responsible for doing this.

The management of a potential conflict of interest was not fully documented

The governance plans for NorthConnex state that ‘All participants in the assessment process (including advisors) must have no conflicts of interest, which would, or may appear to, adversely affect the impartiality of the process. Project team members are responsible for bringing any actual or potential conflict of interest to the attention of the steering committee Chair or Probity Adviser’.

In July 2012, one of the government representatives declared a potential conflict of interest to the steering committee after discussions with the probity advisor in May 2012. This person was involved in all three stages of the assessment process.

The steering committee noted the declaration, and directed the probity advisor and person declaring the interest to ‘work on a plan to manage any future conflict of interest and present it to a future meeting’. There is evidence that a management plan was developed and the Department of Premier and Cabinet advised us that this plan was adopted by the steering committee. This was not captured in the steering committee meeting minutes.

The stage 2 assessment panel report confirmed that ‘the probity advisor has not reported any unresolved concerns/issues’. The probity reports, which were prepared at key points in the assessment process, did not document that the potential conflict of interest had been declared or that a mitigation strategy had been implemented.

We acknowledge that the government representative acted appropriately in declaring the potential conflict of interest. The chair of the steering committee and the probity advisor were responsible for ensuring impartiality in the assessment process.

2. Introduction

NorthConnex is a nine-kilometre tolled motorway tunnel between the M1 Pacific motorway at Wahroonga and the M2 Hills motorway at West Pennant Hills. The total cost for the project is $3.1 billion. NorthConnex will be funded through toll charges, and contributions from the NSW and Australian Governments of up to $405 million each. In January 2015, the NSW Roads Minister signed the final contracts for NorthConnex.

Map of Sydney with the northconnex area circled to show where it will be located in the North of Sydney.
Exhibit 1: Map of NorthConnex

A steering committee, chaired by the Department of Premier and Cabinet and comprising representatives from NSW Treasury, Infrastructure NSW, Transport for NSW and Roads and Maritime Services, as well as an independent member, was responsible for assessing and evaluating the proposal, managing communications with the proponents, and advising the NSW Government. The steering committee assessed the proposal in accordance with a three-stage process in the Unsolicited Proposals - Guide for Submissions and Assessment (the Unsolicited Proposals Guide). As this was a Public Private Partnership (PPP) proposal, the steering committee also assessed the proposal against the National and NSW PPP Guidelines.

Key features of the project

NorthConnex will provide twin motorway tunnels around nine kilometres each in length, with a height clearance of 5.3 metres and a speed limit of 80 km/h. Each tunnel will be built with long term capacity for three lanes, but will initially operate with two lanes and a breakdown lane in each direction. The tunnel includes interchanges to the north and south.  The primary service delivery objectives of NorthConnex are to complete a missing link in Sydney’s motorway network, reduce the number of heavy vehicles using Pennant Hills Road and to ease congestion for Sydney motorists. Major construction work commenced in 2015 and the tunnel is expected to open to traffic in late 2019. When complete, it will link Sydney's north to the Sydney Orbital Network and enable travel from Newcastle (M1) to Melbourne without a single set of traffic lights.

As part of NorthConnex, integration work along the Hills M2 motorway (the M2 Integration) is being carried out to allow the safe merge of traffic from the tunnel onto the Hills M2 motorway. This work will include a new westbound lane from Pennant Hills Road to the Windsor Road interchange and bridge widening along the route.

Budget and funding model

The $3.1 billion (2014–15 nominal) NorthConnex project has two separate, but related agreements:

  • $3.0 billion to finance, design, construct and operate the NorthConnex twin motorway tunnels
    approximately $105 million for the M2 integration.
  • approximately $105 million for the M2 integration.

The proponents, led by Transurban, who are currently the shareholders in the M7 motorway, will finance and operate the NorthConnex motorway with the following financial arrangements (worth approximately $2.1 billion):

  • the NorthConnex motorway, operating under a concession arrangement until year 2048. This includes a revenue share arrangement to allow the State to share in the financial benefits if actual demand is higher than currently forecast. The light vehicle toll will be equal to the nominal M2 toll at the completion of construction
    and there will be a heavy vehicle toll multiplier of three times the light vehicle toll
  • regulations will require heavy vehicles to use NorthConnex rather than Pennant Hills Road
  •  the following changes to the M7 motorway tolling concessions:
    • extension of the M7 tolling concession agreement by 11 years (from 2037 to 2048)
    • phasing-in an increase in the heavy vehicle toll multiplier to three times the current light-vehicle toll. The increase was phased in over two years, in eight increments after financial close for the deal, in 2015. Prior to this increase, heavy and light vehicles paid the same toll.

Up to $810 million in government funding comprising:

  • $405 million from the Australian Government, paid over the construction period as specific project milestones are completed
  • up to $405 million has been reserved from the NSW Government infrastructure investment fund known as Restart NSW. Around $375 million of this will be reimbursed by money received for:
    • changes to the Lane Cove Tunnel tolling arrangements (worth around $200 million), including extending the concession arrangement from 2037 to 2048 and an increase in the heavy vehicle multiplier (from two times the toll for passenger vehicles to three times the toll for passenger vehicles). The tolls for heavy vehicles will also be escalated quarterly by the Consumer Price Index or one per cent (whichever is greater)
    • a one-off sale of the future scheduled payments for the M7 rental payments arrangement (the M7 rent monetisation - $175 million).

These financial arrangements are further described in Exhibit 2. Roads and Maritime Services was responsible for land acquisition costs of up to $165 million funded from its existing budget. The M2 integration works are fully funded by the extension of the M2 tolling concession term from 2046 to 2048.

The following document shows that the Northconnex will be funded which is through preponents, commonwealth funding and restart NSW. This is shown on a map of the motorways on Sydney with the image also showing how the M7 will influence the Northconnex funding through the M7 rent monetisation funding into restart NSW and the Northconnex arrangement with the M7 also funds into this.
Exhibit 2: NorthConnex funding model
Source: Audit Office research 2017

NorthConnex benefits

The NorthConnex project business case states that the new motorway tunnel will address the following issues:

  • Inefficient freight systems: congestion on the existing link affects the efficiency of the national highway network, impacting on freight productivity and limiting opportunities for economic growth.
  • Congestion: there are high levels of congestion on Pennant Hills Road because of the large number of signalised intersections (21) and traffic exceeding the design capacity of the road.
  • Vehicle accidents: data from the Centre for Road Safety (October 2013) indicates that, over a five-year period, there were 945 crashes, with one fatality and 404 people injured. Heavy vehicles were involved in 20 per cent of these crashes.
  • Adverse economic impacts such as traffic noise, community severance and exhaust emissions: the NRMA Red Flag Survey of over 10,000 road users indicated that Pennant Hills Road is considered the third worst road in NSW and the ACT (September 2013).

The project benefits published in the business case include:

  •  increase transport reliability for people, businesses and freight on the motorway network
  • providing an alternative route to the Pacific Highway with 40 sets of traffic lights bypassed
  • up to 15 minutes travel time saved by allowing motorists to avoid stop-start arterial roads
  • more reliable trip by avoiding 21 sets of traffic lights on Pennant Hills Road
  • moving up to 5,000 trucks per day off Pennant Hills Road to reduce traffic congestion, improve safety, local air quality and reduce traffic noise
    opportunity for improved public transport
  •  improving local traffic conditions and amenities on Pennant Hills Road
  • more efficient movement of state and national freight
  • providing a high standard motorway that integrates with the regional transport network.
A timeline of activities for the Northconnex project from 2002 to 2019
Exhibit 3: NorthConnex project development
Exhibit 4: About unsolicited proposals

In January 2012, the NSW Government launched its ‘Guide for Submission and Assessment of Unsolicited Proposals’ (the Unsolicited Proposals Guide) to further engage with the private sector in developing and delivering new infrastructure and services. The Unsolicited Proposals Guide underwent minor revision in August 2012 and a more substantial update in February 2014.

The 2012 Unsolicited Proposals Guide outlined a three-stage assessment process that had been developed to guide the evaluation of proposals (and in later stages, the development of detailed business cases and final binding offers). The Unsolicited Proposals Guide requires all proposals to be assessed against the following criteria:

  • uniqueness – demonstration of the unique benefits of the proposal and the unique ability of the proponent to deliver the proposal
  • value to government (the 2014 version of the Unsolicited Proposals Guide changes this criterion to ‘value for money’. The stage 3 assessment report for NorthConnex assessed the proposal against both criteria)
  • whole of government impact
  • return on investment
  • capability and capacity
  • affordability
  • risk allocation.

The Unsolicited Proposals Guide also describes the governance arrangements for the assessment of unsolicited proposals, which include:

  • an overarching standing steering committee that includes the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Treasury and Infrastructure NSW and reports to the Infrastructure Committee of Cabinet
  • proposal specific steering committees that are convened if a project reaches stage 2
  • assessment panels that are convened at either stage 1 (which provide advice to the standing unsolicited proposal steering committee) or stage 2 (which provide advice to the proposal specific steering committee)
  • a probity advisor
  • technical advisors, who may be used to provide expert advice to the assessment panel and steering committee.


The Unsolicited Proposal Assessment Process

  • stage 1 – Initial Submission and Strategic Assessment — A comprehensive initial assessment to identify any potential benefit to the NSW Government of further consideration and development with the proponent
  • stage 2 – Detailed proposal — The NSW Government and proponent work collaboratively to develop and assess a detailed proposal (which is similar to a business case)
  • stage 3 – Negotiation of final binding offer — Outstanding issues are finalised with a view to entering a binding agreement should the NSW Government accept the final offer.

The governance arrangements for NorthConnex are described in Appendix 2.

3. Recommendations

By December 2017, the Department of Premier and Cabinet should:

1. publish an updated ‘Unsolicited Proposals – Guide for Submission and Assessment’ which clarifies obligations with requirements in other NSW Government policies such as the NSW PPP guideline and Infrastructure Investor Assurance Framework. The update should require:

a) a business case to be prepared, and a business case gateway review completed, as part of the assessment of the detailed proposal (currently stage 2)

b) probity reports must be completed and considered before the decision to proceed to the next stage.
 

The Department of Premier and Cabinet and NSW Treasury should immediately:

2. improve record keeping to ensure compliance with the State Records Act 1998 and the NSW Government Standard on Records Management.

4. Key findings

 

4.1 How did the assessment of the NorthConnex funding model ensure value for money for NSW taxpayers?

The steering committee assessed the proposal against the value for money criteria in the Unsolicited Proposals Guide and NSW PPP guidelines. The use of competitive tendering for the design and construction of NorthConnex provided an additional driver for value for money. The Unsolicited Proposals Guide is not clear on the timing of key assurance stages. While the project complied with the Guide, our view is that a business case gateway review would be more effective at providing risk assurance if it were completed during stage 2 and before commencement of the procurement phase in stage 3. We also found that record keeping for NorthConnex did not comply with legislation or the governance plans.

The processes used to estimate the initial project scope and budget were independently verified, consistent with Roads and Maritime Services policy, and sufficiently robust for an infrastructure project of this scope. As part of their initial proposal, the proponents accepted traffic risk for NorthConnex. This meant that should the predicted traffic volumes not eventuate, the NSW Government would not have to provide any financial reimbursement or subsidy to make up for lower than expected toll revenue.

The use of traffic modelling represented the best available assessment given the complexity of the network and the available traffic data. Where there were differences in traffic modelling estimates, the NSW Government used the figures which provided the better outcome for NSW taxpayers, regardless of source.

The NSW Government's contribution for NorthConnex was considered with regard to NSW PPP Guidelines and subject to an expert review panel business case review.

By their nature, unsolicited proposals lack transparency and the benefit of competition in the procurement process. This makes it more critical for NSW Government participants involved in the assessment of unsolicited proposals to keep complete and accurate records of their activities and decisions. We found that record keeping for the NorthConnex proposal did not fully meet the requirements of the State Records Act 1998, the NSW Government Standard on Records Management and the proposal specific governance plans.  

Recommendations

By December 2017, the Department of Premier and Cabinet should:

1. publish an updated ‘Unsolicited Proposals – Guide for Submission and Assessment’ which clarifies obligations with requirements in other NSW Government policies such as the NSW PPP guideline and Infrastructure Investor Assurance Framework. The update should require:

a) a business case to be prepared, and a business case gateway review completed, as part of the assessment of the detailed proposal (currently stage 2)

b) probity reports must be completed and considered before the decision to proceed to the next stage.

The Department of Premier and Cabinet and NSW Treasury should immediately:

2. improve record keeping to ensure compliance with the State Records Act 1998 and the NSW Government Standard on Records Management.

4.1.1 The processes used to estimate the initial project scope and budget were robust

Transurban initially submitted that the proponents could finance, design, construct and operate two motorways to complete the links in the Sydney motorway network. It also proposed changes to tolling concessions to support these initiatives. The initial NorthConnex proposal used the preferred route identified in an independent review conducted in 2004 (and confirmed in 2007) as the basis for the project and provided an initial cost estimate based on this route.

During stage 2 of the assessment process, the commercial team sought to establish a set of commercial terms which met the requirements of the Unsolicited Proposals Guide, in addition to directions from the steering committee. The negotiation and agreement of the commercial terms required an initial project cost figure to inform assessment of the proposed tolling concessions.

A multi-agency technical team assessed the cost of the proposal. Project costing during the strategic and planning stages of infrastructure development relies on contingency figures to estimate the cost for the project. The technical team's assessment was consistent with the Department of Infrastructure and Transport's ‘Best Practice Cost Estimation for Publicly Funded Road and Rail Construction 2011’.

The extent of assessment was consistent with the rigor that would be expected for a project that was at the business case stage of development

There were multiple reviews of cost estimates for the NorthConnex proposal as the assessment progressed. During stage 1, cost review focussed on assessing the initial proposal. During stage 2, Roads and Maritime Services engaged an independent costing expert to assist the technical team to review the proposal and develop an independent cost estimate for the project.

The cost estimates for the project decreased over time as the contingency requirement reduced. This is consistent with the Department of Infrastructure and Transport's ‘Best Practice Cost Estimation for Publicly Funded Road and Rail Construction 2011’.

The steering committee considered whether the cost target, which was used as the basis for the design and construction tender, was likely to be achievable and provide scope for competition in relation to innovation and design.

4.1.2 The use of traffic modelling, including as part of negotiating tolling concessions, was consistent with NSW Government requirements

Traffic modelling involves the use of real world data and computer simulations to predict the number of vehicles that will use roads. For large infrastructure projects like NorthConnex, traffic modelling plays an important role in determining the potential benefits and costs of a project (in terms of modelling reduced road congestion and estimating travel time savings). Traffic modelling also underpins commercial negotiations relating to tolling concessions, such as the length of an agreement (in years) and the amount of a toll.

Roads and Maritime Services released traffic modelling guidelines in February 2013. The guidelines aim to develop consistency in traffic modelling practice and promote high quality model outputs that will lead to better project design.

The use of independent traffic modelling represented the best available assessment, given the complexities of the network being modelled and the available traffic data

During the assessment of NorthConnex, Roads and Maritime Services engaged an independent traffic modelling consultant to assess the traffic impacts of NorthConnex and validate the forecast provided by the proponents. The assessment included providing forecasts for the 2021 and 2031 traffic volumes for NorthConnex and the M7 corridor.

The assessment used a specific model, initially developed for the WestConnex project, and the use of this model was consistent with Roads and Maritime Services' practice at the time. The results of the independent assessment were also used to validate the proponents' modelling and to provide confidence to the NSW Government.

The NSW Government managed the risk of underestimating traffic volumes by including a revenue sharing arrangement

As part of their initial proposal, the proponents accepted traffic risk for NorthConnex. This meant that should the predicted traffic volumes not eventuate, the NSW Government would not have to provide any financial reimbursement or subsidy to make up for lower than expected toll revenue.

During the negotiations for the proposal, the risk of underestimating the traffic volumes was managed by including a revenue sharing arrangement. If NorthConnex traffic volumes are higher than expected, the proponents share the additional revenue with the NSW Government. This mitigates the risk of the private sector making super profits from the infrastructure investment.

Traffic modelling identified the impact of truck diversion from the M7 as having a significant potential impact on the funding model for the NorthConnex proposal  

As part of the NorthConnex funding arrangement, tolls for heavy commercial vehicles (trucks over 12.5 metres in length and 2.8 metres high) will increase significantly on the M7. Heavy commercial vehicles used to pay the same toll as cars. Under the terms of the NorthConnex agreement, they will now pay three times the car toll. This change has been gradually phased in through quarterly incremental increases starting in January 2015.

The traffic modelling for NorthConnex identified that this increase would result in some heavy commercial vehicles diverting from the M7. The additional tolls for heavy commercial vehicles on the M7 contribute 27 per cent of the funding requirement for NorthConnex (compared with 27.3 per cent for tolls on NorthConnex and 27.4 per cent for NSW and Australian Government contributions). There was a limited sensitivity analysis conducted on the impact of the potential diversion.

4.1.3 The process used to determine the NSW Government's contribution was reasonable

The unsolicited proposal assessment process provided the decision-making framework for NorthConnex. The steering committee and assessment panel applied relevant government policies and guidelines, including the NSW PPP Guidelines.

The process used to determine the NSW Government's contribution was in line with NSW Government requirements. There was consideration of value for money and value to government, with the application of a ‘cap’ for the NSW Government's contribution early in the process.

The public sector comparator confirmed that the NSW Government could not afford to deliver the project by itself

The public sector comparator is an estimate of the cost that the NSW Government would pay were it to deliver a project or service by itself. The public sector comparator assumes that a state owned corporation would deliver the project and would earn a commercial rate of return on revenues derived from user charges.
The commercial team developed the public sector comparator for NorthConnex in stage 2, consistent with the NSW PPP Guidelines. 

The public sector comparator indicated that a state owned corporation could only support a capital investment of around $600 million in net present value terms. This would result in a funding shortfall of $1.7 billion. The steering committee concluded that traditional delivery and funding of the NorthConnex project was not affordable or viable from the NSW Government’s perspective, given the budget position and commitment to other infrastructure projects.

Competitive tendering for the design and construction component added value

In May 2013, the NSW Government announced that it had reached an in-principle agreement with the proponents and agreed to proceed to stage 3 of the unsolicited proposal proces (submission of a final binding offer) on the basis that a competitive design and construction tender be conducted.

The inclusion of a competitive tender at this stage of the proposal helped drive value and allowed the market to share innovative ideas, which ultimately helped improve the scope, including increased tunnel height.

Transurban (on behalf of the proponents) ran the tender process which encouraged innovation in design. Roads and Maritime Services provided the output specification requirements for the motorway.

4.1.4 Two key assurance steps were not completed in a timely manner

The decision to proceed from stage 2 to stage 3 was not informed by a Business Case Gateway Review or completed stage 2 Probity Report. The steering committee completed these key assurance steps after the NSW Government announced the decision to proceed to stage 3.  

The Department of Premier and Cabinet has provided a draft update to the Unsolicited Proposals Guide. We note that this draft provides clarity on when these assurance steps should be completed for future unsolicited proposals.

The business case expert review (or gateway review) report did not inform the stage 2 assessment

The stage 2 assessment involves the proponents working with the NSW Government to develop a detailed proposal, which is then presented for Cabinet's consideration. If the detailed proposal is successful at this stage, the proposal moves to stage 3, and the NSW Government and proponents develop a final binding offer.

For an infrastructure project like NorthConnex, the detailed proposal is equivalent to a business case. Like comparable projects, NorthConnex did undergo an expert review panel (also known as a 'gateway review').

In February 2014, the expert panel reviewed the draft business case. This was after stage 2 was completed in May 2013. The gateway review did not inform the development of the project cost or scope, as the commercial terms had been negotiated as part of stage 2.

While there is no specific guidance in the Unsolicited Proposals Guide or the NSW PPP guidelines on when a business case gateway review should be completed, our view is that a business case gateway review would be more effective at providing risk assurance if it were completed during stage 2 and before commencement of the procurement phase in stage 3.

The stage 2 probity report did not inform the stage 2 assessment

According to the Unsolicited Proposals Guide, the role of a probity advisor is to monitor and report on the application of the Independent Commission Against Corruption's probity fundamentals during the assessment process. Probity fundamentals include maintaining impartiality, accountability and transparency, confidentiality, managing conflicts of interest and obtaining value for money.

The probity advisor reviewed the probity related content in the stage 2 assessment report in May 2013. Although the probity advisor confirmed that there were no unresolved probity concerns/issues and that a draft probity report had been prepared, the stage 2 probity report was not finalised until November 2013, six months after the NSW Government announced that it had reached an in-principle agreement with the proponents and completed the stage 2 assessment process in May 2013.

While there is no specific guidance in the Unsolicited Proposals Guide or the NSW PPP Guidelines on when a probity report should be completed, our view is that the probity report should have been completed earlier to inform the decision to proceed to stage 3.

4.1.5 Record keeping did not fully comply with legislation or the governance plan

By their nature, unsolicited proposals lack transparency and the benefit of competition in the procurement process. This makes it more critical for NSW Government participants involved in the assessment of unsolicited proposals to keep complete and accurate records of their activities and decisions.  

Exhibit 5: NSW Government standards for record keeping
Should records be captured?
Statement Where to find it
‘Each public office must make and keep full and accurate records of the activities of the office.’

State Records Act 1998

Part 2, under 12 Records management obligations.

‘Records and information are routinely created and managed as part of normal business practice.’

Standard on Records Management

Principle 3, point 3.1.

Whose responsibility is it to capture records?
Statement Where to find it
‘Staff and contractors understand the records management responsibilities of their role, the need to make and keep records, and are familiar with the relevant policies and procedures.’

Standard on Records Management

Principle 1, point 1.6.

‘Records and information management is the responsibility of senior management who provide direction and support for records and information management in accordance with business requirements and relevant laws and regulations.’

Standard on Records Management

Principle 1, point 1.2.

Are drafts official records?
Statement Where to find it
‘An ‘official record’ is a record made or received by an agency in the conduct of its business. According to this definition, drafts are records. However, drafts do not always need to be kept. State Records advises that drafts should be kept when there is an identified recordkeeping requirement to retain them because they document significant decisions, reasons and actions or contain significant information that is not contained in the final form of the document, or both.’ Recordkeeping FAQs on State Records Authority website.
Advice on keeping minutes
Statement Where to find it
‘Make sure that someone has been delegated to make a record of the meeting. Document when the meeting was held, who attended, the discussions points, decisions, advice or information provided/communicated, and actions to be taken. Record any dissent or issues raised by participants. Circulate and confirm the accuracy of the minutes of the meeting.’ Recordkeeping Reminders – leaflet under heading ‘Meetings’.
Do records need to be captured in an EDRMS (electronic document and records management system)?
Statement Where to find it
‘No. An EDRMS (electronic document and records management system) is one type of system that organisations can use to manage their records. If implemented well, an EDRMS can protect and manage records as authentic evidence of business to meet your organisation’s statutory and other responsibilities, and can assist you to address your organisation’s longer term needs for information. For further information about EDRMS, see our FAQs about EDRMS.’ Recordkeeping FAQs on State Records Authority website.

Source: Audit Office research 2017

We found that record keeping for the NorthConnex proposal did not fully meet the requirements of the State Records Act 1998, the NSW Government Standard on Records Management and the proposal specific governance plans.  

The governance plans for stages 2 and 3 state:

Records of the proposal and evaluation process must be maintained in order to allow for independent audit and review. The maintenance of appropriate records increases the accountability and transparency of the process.

The governance plan specifies that the Proposal Manager (Department of Premier and Cabinet) was responsible for record keeping for the steering committee. However, the stage 2 governance plan did not specify who was responsible for maintaining records for other groups associated with the proposal, such as the assessment panel and the commercial, representative and technical teams. The stage 3 governance plan did specify that the chairs and team leaders of the project teams associated with the proposal development were responsible for ensuring appropriate records were maintained for their respective committees and project teams.

However, we were unable to obtain minutes or agendas for these groups. In our previous audit on unsolicited proposals, this documentation was available. There were inadequate records kept of all NSW Government representative meetings with the proponents, despite this being a requirement of the Stage 2 Governance Plan. Additionally, some status reports from these groups were not tabled or adequately captured in the minutes of the steering committee meetings.

The management of a potential conflict of interest was not fully documented

The governance plans for NorthConnex state that ‘All participants in the assessment process (including advisors) must have no conflicts of interest, which would, or may appear to, adversely affect the impartiality of the process. Project team members are responsible for bringing any actual or potential conflict of interest to the attention of the steering committee Chair or Probity Adviser’.

In July 2012, one of the government representatives declared a potential conflict of interest to the steering committee after discussions with the probity advisor in May 2012. This person was involved in all three stages of the assessment process.  

The steering committee noted the declaration, and directed the probity advisor and person declaring the interest to ‘work on a plan to manage any future conflict of interest and present it to a future meeting’. There is evidence that a management plan was developed and the Department of Premier and Cabinet advised us that this plan was adopted by the steering committee. This was not captured in the steering committee meeting minutes. However, there is some evidence that shows the management plan was implemented.  

The stage 2 assessment panel report confirmed that ‘the probity advisor has not reported any unresolved concerns/issues’. The probity reports, which were prepared at key points in the assessment process, did not document that the potential conflict of interest had been declared or that a mitigation strategy had been implemented.  

We acknowledge that the government representative acted appropriately in declaring the potential conflict of interest. The chair of the steering committee and the probity advisor were responsible for ensuring impartiality in the assessment process.  

4.2 Did the assessment adequately consider the overall impact of tolling arrangements to road users and the community?

The assessment of NorthConnex adequately considered the impact of tolling arrangements, given the NSW Government policy set out the NSW Long-Term Transport Master Plan.  

The steering committee's assessment of the overall impact of tolling arrangements complied with relevant government policy, including the NSW PPP Guidelines. The NSW Government's road pricing policy, described in the NSW Long-Term Transport Master Plan, includes direct charging of road users to fund new transport infrastructure. The steering committee considered issues related to equity as part of the public interest evaluation, as well as the impact of tolls over the life of the agreement.

4.2.1 The assessment considered the equity of tolling arrangements for road users

The primary service delivery objectives of NorthConnex are to complete a missing link in Sydney’s motorway network, reduce the number of heavy vehicles using Pennant Hills Road and to ease congestion for Sydney motorists. The tolling arrangements were designed to pay for the cost of the infrastructure and divert heavy commercial vehicles from using Pennant Hills Road.  

During the assessment of the NorthConnex proposal, the steering committee considered tolling arrangements.

The tolling arrangements are consistent with the Long-Term Transport Master Plan

The Long-Term Transport Master Plan (2012) described the NSW Government’s intention to explore new methods of funding road infrastructure, such as changes to road pricing. Of particular relevance is the intent to use innovative financing and funding approaches to expand the motorway network. The NorthConnex funding model is consistent with the following principles described in the Long-Term Transport Master Plan:

  • NSW will seek more direct charging of heavy vehicles for the roads they use, with these revenues being reinvested in transport.
  • direct charging, or road pricing, is a way to raise revenue for new infrastructure and or lessening congestion
  • toll revenues will be directly allocated to fund public transport and complete missing motorway links.

Public interest evaluation report considered issues related to equity

The steering committee completed a public interest evaluation during stages 2 and 3 in accordance with the NSW PPP Guidelines. The evaluation addressed eight criteria including meeting NSW Government objectives, public access and community consultation.  

The evaluation concluded that the proposed level of user charge and the contribution from the taxpayer are reasonable considering the benefits that will eventuate from this infrastructure.

The evaluation considered whether there were adequate arrangements to ensure that the public, including disadvantaged groups, can access and use the government service and related infrastructure. The evaluation report states that:

The proposal will be designed, constructed and operated to provide a service to all motorists subject to the payment of a toll. The public, including disadvantaged groups will have equal rights to use the completed project. The proposal will not change access to existing private or public facilities or infrastructure.

4.2.2 The assessment considered the impact of tolling arrangements cross the metropolitan road network

The assessment of NorthConnex complied with government policies which consider the impact of infrastructure

During the assessment of NorthConnex, the steering committee and Roads and Maritime Services completed relevant processes to assess the impact of infrastructure in line with government policy. These included:

  • unsolicited proposal assessment reports
  • the business case and subsequent expert panel review
  • public interest evaluation report
  • environmental impact statement.

Traffic modelling was undertaken to consider the impact of tolling arrangements across the motorway network

Roads and Maritime Services undertook network wide traffic modelling, using an independent consultant, to ascertain the impact of tolling changes across the motorway network and adjacent roads.  

The most significant finding from the traffic modelling was the potential for heavy commercial vehicles to divert from the M7 because of the increase in the heavy commercial vehicle toll multiplier. The modelling attempted to estimate the traffic impact on some roads surrounding the M7 which might experience greater heavy commercial vehicle use. The most recent traffic data show that the increase in the truck toll multiplier has not had as much of a diversionary impact as the modelling predicted.

There was consideration of the cumulative impact of tolling changes on motorists across the life of the agreement

Throughout the assessment of the NorthConnex proposal, the assessment panel and steering committee evaluated the impact of tolling changes across the different toll roads through to 2048, the final year of the agreement with the proponents.