Most writers who set out to define ‘public infrastructure’ give up! I can understand why.
Is ownership the key? Does public infrastructure need to be publicly owned? This would make definition simpler. But the very same infrastructure can pass from private to public and back to private again without changing the service provided as, for example, when the Adelaide Electric Company, which started as a private company was taken over by the Government as a war time measure, became part of the public company, the Electricity Trust of South Australia. The generation, distribution and retailing arms were then disaggregated, with some sold and some let under long term leases to the private sector.
If not ownership, is ‘control’ the key? Does government regulation substitute for ownership, and if so, what level of regulation is necessary – price control, worker safety, environmental protection? (A subsidiary, but important, question here is to what extent do the regulators work in the ‘public interest’ and to what extent as protectors of the incumbent agencies.
Then are we looking at ‘access’? For example, rail track, roads, and depots within, say, Dupont Chemicals would be private infrastructure since its purpose would be to provide service only to Dupont and access to these facilities would be limited to Dupont. Now we may be getting somewhere. Public infrastructure would then be infrastructure that the public has access to. They may have to pay for it, but the right to access would be open to all.
This places the focus on service, and access to service. This, in turn, may overcome a problem that all asset managers and infrastructure planners have observed, when infrastructure is defined in terms of assets rather than service, we can have a wide differentiation. For example, some would limit infrastructure to transport systems (pipes, wires, roads, rail). Others would include public buildings (government offices and schools and hospitals) but not private buildings (private offices, private schools and private hospitals). Some would differentiate between passive civil structures (infrastructure) and electrical and mechanical assets (plant and machinery). Others might make a differentiation between these elements but consider them all as subsets of infrastructure, along with fleet. It all gets rather confusing.
Questions today are:
Is defining public infrastructure in terms of service and access to service useful?
Such a definition may open up new questions for exploration, what might these be?