Third runway exactly what the people want... and pigs fly

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am


Secretary for Transport and Housing Eva Cheng said there was overwhelming public support for building a HK$136.2 billion third runway at the airport on Lantau, with 73 per cent of nearly 24,000 respondents backing the idea in a government-commissioned survey. Nearly four-fifths of them called for a fast decision, and Cheng agreed.

SCMP, December 30

What a warm feeling it gives you to know our government supports democratic initiatives so strongly. Could this new third runway ever be given the nod if the public did not agree? Well, ahem, it could actually. All the government would need to do is (...what's the phrase I'm looking for here? Ah, yes, got it...) arrange things more suitably.

It could, for instance, draft its own hymn of praise (otherwise known as a public consultation document), while pretending this was done independently, and it could use this document to pose selected questions to the public, ignoring less convenient ones.

It could then keep secret all the responses it gets, including how many thousands of them were identical in phrasing or pre-printed and how they were tabulated as pro or con. It might even try to tell us that four-fifths of the respondents, entirely of their own volition, wrote down in their responses that there should be a fast decision.

Yes, that is how our government could arrange things more suitably if it did not support democratic initiatives quite so strongly.

But let us be rational about it. There may indeed be a good case for building a third runway at the airport and, if there is not one now, there will certainly be one in a few years given the growth of traffic.

The real question is not whether there will be an eventual need. It is rather how much it will cost and how we shall pay for it.

Let us first take the question of how much it will cost.

We set price tags on public infrastructure projects in this town by reference to how much was approved for the last one, how big our public savings have become, how willing our bureaucrats are to spend these savings and whether Beijing has any thoughts on the matter.

Very funny, you say, but let's get serious, Mr Cynic. That's not how it is actually done. Hah-hah, I say. Yes, it is. Don't mix up how it should be done and how it is actually done.

It is my guess that this project need not cost HK$136.2 billion (incorporating inflation guesses) or even HK$86.2 billion (in 2010 prices) but HK$50 billion at most.

You're right. I have no credentials for this guess. I'm not an expert airport consultant. I just happen to have met a few and seen how they work, including how deep they can stick their snouts into the public trough when the slops are poured in.

Hooweee, piggy! I'm confident of my guess.

And as to who will pay for it, why you of course. The question is whether you will do so as a traveller or as a taxpayer and the answer is as a taxpayer if you let Eva do it to you.

This is why the public consultation fuss was concentrated on whether we should have a third runway at all. Having been told that we said yes, the money questions can all be treated as minor.

The tourism lobby will then have no trouble telling Eva Cheng that taxes should pay for the runway because it's good for hotels and airlines not to charge tourists and good for business not to charge businessmen. She'll buy this nonsense, too, count on it.

She can then be very considerate of environmental opposition, confident the public will never sacrifice air travel to pink dolphins. For those people who would do so, she can offer to build a dolpinarium at the dolphin breeding grounds. Too bad if the dolphins don't use it. Ungrateful beasts. Not our fault.

And then the rich will get richer and the poorer will get poorer and our next chief executive can say that he just doesn't know why the studies show that income polarity continues to worsen in this town.