Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge

When figures can be just smoke and nonsense

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 November, 2011, 12:00am

The government said the delay might have pushed up costs by HK$6.5 billion.

SCMP, November 19

This one just won't stop rattling around the traps. Certain irresponsible people in a party we won't name but which is spelled C-i-v-i-c have cost us HK$6.5 billion by taking advantage of a little old lady in Tung Chung to delay the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge through a vexatious lawsuit.

Tch, tch, tch. Let us therefore be grateful our courts have stopped these nasty people in their tracks.

There are some inconsistencies here, however. If the bridge is now to cost us an additional HK$6.5 billion, why did the funding that the Legislative Council approved last week for its construction not rise by that amount?

Legco gave its nod to HK$48.53 billion, which works out to exactly our 57.8 per cent share of the HK$83 billion and change at which the bridge was previously budgeted.

Perhaps then it is also irresponsible of Transport and Housing Secretary Eva Cheng to have approached Legco for this funding request while knowing all along that she will ask for HK$6.5 billion more once work has started and we are committed to the bridge.

Or is this HK$6.5 billion perhaps just smoke and nonsense?

About that 57.8 per cent share of the costs of the bridge - Guangdong will pay only 32.6 per cent and Macau a paltry 9.6 per cent. Some crafty fellow across the border fooled our bureaucrats into thinking that a three-way bridge does not go three ways. Yeah, there's one born every minute on this side of the world too.

Going back to smoke and nonsense, however, Cheng never explained how she came up with her guess. She just said HK$6.5 billion. It's easy to do. You can do it too.

Home Affairs Secretary Tsang Tak-sing was then left with the job of trying to put some substance on it. He attributed the figure to construction inflation and the cost of compressing the construction timetable to keep a target completion date of 2016.

But construction inflation in the public sector has been very low recently, averaging only 2.5 per cent over the past two years. It would account for only a fraction of the HK$6.5 billion.

Even then, Tsang seems to have forgotten that inflation works two ways. Incomes also rise and the burden is only greater when incomes do not rise as quickly as costs. If this were not so, the whole world would have gone irreversibly bust within a few years of the invention of money.

It is interesting to note then that over the past two years average incomes in Hong Kong have risen faster than inflation in public sector construction. In other words, the project's real cost has actually come down a little when fully adjusted for inflation.

As to compressing the timetable, why does it need to be compressed? This is not a vital project. Its purpose is to create construction jobs (for migrant workers) and keep functional constituencies in Legco happy. We have always lived perfectly well without a Zhuhai bridge. If it now so desperately needs speeding up, what about sewage works, recycling plants and alternative energy facilities?

And if we need to blame someone for the fact that a judicial review took almost two years to complete, why not attribute it to the snail's pace at which our courts deal with such things? Once again, two levels of the judiciary could not agree. That's what held things up.

But what I really find objectionable about this dubious estimate is the way Cheng offered it in time for it to become a political football in the district council elections. Senior civil servants should be above this sort of thing.

As matters turned out, however, Miriam Lau Kin-yee, who has the transport seat in Legco and who is inclined (expressing it mildly) to promote transport projects on behalf of her constituents, devoted a great deal of energy during the elections to clubbing Civic Party candidates over the head with having wasted HK$6.5 billion.

She was as disinclined as Cheng to support this accusation but she had a good excuse. She was quoting a senior government official - Cheng.

I have my doubts about Civics too. By and large they're a collection of lawyers who think government is just another courthouse and who agree on little else. They're much like the Democrats that way except that the Democrats represent the poor. But this is the wrong bludgeon to use on them.