With the renewed political focus on regional development, it’s timely to think about white elephants – in this instance specifically about Infrastructure White Elephants.

Anytime politicians are excited by regional development, herds of white elephants can’t be far away. I touched on this important matter in a previous post on “visionary” projects, but now I’m interested to know which projects, if any, qualify as Infrastructure White Elephants.

To begin with I’ll use a simple definition – according to Wiki, a white elephant is a valuable possession whose level of use is low relative to its cost to build and maintain.

On that definition I’d be tempted to include Sydney’s Cross City tunnel and Brisbane’s Clem 7 under-river tunnel on my list of provisional white elephants, as initial traffic levels were much lower than forecast. Then going back a bit, other potential candidates might include the Ord River Scheme and more recently the Alice Springs to Darwin rail line.

In Melbourne there’s the Southern Star Observation Wheel, the Docklands film studio (although I hear it’s getting busier) and of course Melbourne Bike Share is showing worrying signs that it could become the definitive Infrastructure White Elephant.

There are some definitional issues here. How for example do you handle a project like Sydney’s Airport Link train that only makes a profit because it initially went into receivership and was acquired by the new operator on a lower cost basis? And when is it a stuff-up rather than a white elephant? How low does usage have to be – is simply making a financial loss enough to qualify for white elephant status?

But most observers don’t seem too worried by such complications. This one has made up a list that includes Federation Square, the NSW Millennium Train project, the National Wine Centre in Adelaide and the Queensland magnesium light metals project.

And here’s someone’s list of Melbourne’s white elephants – Eastlink, the Regional Fast Rail project, MYKI, Federation Square, Southern Cross Station, Southern Star Observation Wheel, Albert Park Grand Prix and Waverley Park.

I think most of these are better described as stuff-ups, mistakes or con jobs than as white elephants. Earning the status of Infrastructure White Elephant is not easy – in my view the common understanding of the term requires that usage be very low for a sustained period.

Maybe ‘White Elephant’ is too restrictive. The simplest thing might be just to look at projects where the benefits are unambiguosly lower than the costs and treat White Elephants as a subset. There must be many of these already (suggestions?) but it’s likely there’ll be many more anytime politicians start trumpeting about regional development.