Footbridge a $1.8b feat of foolishness

Editorial | Mary Ma 21 Jun 2018

The government may have plenty of money, but does that mean policymakers are free to be extravagant - to do whatever they like, even when cheaper alternatives are available?

Before the Finance Committee is such a test case. The administration is asking for nearly HK$1.8 billion to build a 1,772-foot long pedestrian bridge over a Yuen Long nullah, from the West Rail's Long Ping Station to Kau Yuk Road in the south.

My jaw dropped when I heard the price tag. Nearly HK$1.8 billion for a footbridge? That would certainly be a record, making it the most expensive walkway ever built here, and probably in the world.

Ha! It's really nice to be wealthy. With money to burn, one can do something that otherwise would have been subject to stricter scrutiny.

Reasons like the existence of caverns under the planned route don't justify the expensive cost, since there are always alternatives that can achieve the same policy objective - and at lower cost. Yesterday, five professional bodies involved in architecture and city planning came up with such an alternative.

The problem is incentive. Would policymakers be more motivated to look for a cheaper solution if their budget had been tighter? I wonder.

The case at hand is just another example of white elephant projects that district councils have committed to over the years.

When politicians spent HK$2.4 million to replace a tiny section of pedestrian walkway railings that some contractors said could have been done at one-tenth the cost, we should never be surprised by the footbridge extravagance.

It's lucky - albeit ironic - that the footbridge committed to by Yuen Long District Council is costing so much money that the government had no choice but to refer it to the Finance Committee for public funding. Otherwise, they could have gone ahead without having to seek fresh approval.

The five professional bodies are confident their alternative proposal is capable of not only achieving the original policy objective - for half the price - but even also bringing greater economic benefits to local small businesses that would otherwise be hidden by the future footbridge.

It was stunning. The alternative design seems more convincing, so it's a slap in the face of those district councilors who insist the footbridge is the only choice they would accept.

Pro-establishment district councilor Kwok Keung was furious at the professionals' proposal, attacking it relentlessly since its release.

I'm puzzled at why Kwok was so enraged? Actually, I'm totally baffled because the professional bodies have already pointed out the HK$1.8 billion footbridge would be too distant from the most congested spot to create the crowd diversion effect.

As Finance Committee members deliberate the funding request tomorrow, they mustn't allow themselves to become an ATM. At stake is fiscal prudence.

Call it a footbridge too far.

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