Jake's View

Tung Chung a case study in foolishness

Don't trust government planners who already built a community to justify an airport rail link

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 December, 2013, 1:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 December, 2013, 1:00am

The government is conducting the Tung Chung New Town Development Extension Study with the aim of developing the area into a bigger new town.

SCMP, December 12

Let me tell you about Tung Chung. Back when locating a new airport on the remote north side of Lantau Island came under serious consideration, one big difficulty was transport links.

The airport needed more than just a roadway to town, no matter how many lanes and how high the speed limit. It was decided that there must be a railway as well and it was immediately apparent that the cost of this railway, bridge included, would be enormous, in the end as much as the entire airport platform itself.

It was also apparent, however, that passenger traffic on a railway to the airport could recover only the smallest fraction of its cost through fare revenue, and that the project was commercially ridiculous.

They are busy with other projects from Cloud Cuckooland

This would not do. Appearances count to the Hong Kong government. Looking foolish was not an option. How to resolve the dilemma then?

One way out was to hide the crushing financial burden in the balance sheet of something else. The MTR Corporation pulled the short straw and its finances have been compromised ever since. But it was still not enough.

And then one of the planners came up with a brilliant idea. Why not build a hitherto unplanned new town right beside the airport, a counterpart in misery to Tuen Mun across the water?

Airport jobs could never justify it, of course, and let's not talk about the noise, this planner advised, or about the fact that Tung Chung has some of the worst air pollution of the entire city. Let's look instead at the consequent need for a companion rail service to the Airport Express and its fare revenue. That should fix the look-foolish thing.

Thus Hong Kong came to have the unique inside-out, upside-down, back-to-front distinction of building a residential district to serve a railway rather than building a railway to serve a residential district.

To really put the icing on the cake, the planners then came up with Yat Tung Estate, a big Tung Chung public-housing project that is not only remote from Hong Kong but also remote from Tung Chung itself. They will need another railway some day to connect it properly to Tung Chung.

In the meantime, however, they are busy with other projects from Cloud Cuckooland. To serve a costly bridge to Macau, for which not the slightest need was ever adduced, we are to engage in another reclamation project of 150 hectares for immigration control and commercial facilities.

This translates to 1.5 square kilometres or, to put it another way, 16.14 million square feet of site area. At current household size numbers this, at a rough guess, would be enough to build housing for more than 300,000 people at the density of Yat Tung Estate.

And yet our chief executive tells us that a housing shortage is our big problem and solving it his big priority. Let's call him Pinocchio and ask him how long his nose has grown.

But we have more. Also out there is something called the Lantau Developers Alliance, which is now in the news protesting that we will lose HK$100 billion unless we build enough hotels and shops on Lantau to accommodate the crowds who will come pouring over the new bridge from Macau in two years' time.

They will instead go to Hengqin Island, warns the alliance.

Far-sighted Hengqin, a combination of gravel pit and reclaimed mud hole on the far side of Macau, has development plans somewhere near the far side of the moon.

In its future it sees itself welcoming 60 million tourists a year, which would make it the world's second-biggest tourist destination after France.

Clearly, the Lantau Developers Alliance has been too conservative in estimating the damage to the Hong Kong economy. Each of those 60 million people has to spend only HK$1,666 in Henqin rather than in Lantau, easily done on two nights stay and a little shopping, to make our loss not just HK$100 billion in total but HK$100 billion a year.

Capitalise that at appropriate discount rates and we're out at least HK$1 trillion. Oh, the horror. How will we ever survive this calamity?