What’s a few billion dollars between the government and taxpayers?

Cost overrun on the Sha Tin to Central rail link is only the latest example of authorities providing false estimates that add up to real money

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 December, 2017, 1:16am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 December, 2017, 2:02am

“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

I don’t know which American politician actually said this, but he might as well be describing the cost overruns of all those showcase infrastructure projects under the post-handover Hong Kong government.

Cost of Sha Tin-Central rail link balloons to HK$87 billion

The latest news is that the Sha Tin to Central MTR link is set to cost an extra HK$16.5 billion, on top of the HK$80 billion already approved by lawmakers. But that may still not be the final bill, according to Michael Tien Puk-sun, chairman of the Legislative Council’s transport panel.

The project’s cross-harbour link to Admiralty is not expected to finish until 2021, and Tien thinks the final overrun could add another billion or two.

As they say, a billion here and a billion there …

But we have barely been able to digest the disclosure from a few weeks ago that the much touted Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge is expected to exceed its budget by more than HK$11 billion.

Even though the project is a three-way bridge, Hong Kong mysteriously has been handed more than half of the project cost. So we will be on the hook for slightly more than HK$5 billion of the cost overrun.

Years late and way too expensive, here are Hong Kong’s budget black holes

Meanwhile, the high-speed rail link to Guangzhou, also built by the MTR for the government, has seen its costs balloon by HK$19.6 billion to HK$84.4 billion, and a delay of three years to next autumn.

Now in the case of the Sha Tin-Central link, I don’t want to blame it all on the MTR or the government. More than HK$4 billion – yes, you read that right – was spent on preserving archaeological sites near the new Sung Wong Toi station in Kowloon.

Heritage experts and activists were jumping up and down, insisting on the sites’ archaeological significance.

Personally, I find HK$4.1 billion a steep price to pay for a history lesson. Do we really care if some child emperor from the late Song dynasty came and died in Kowloon while trying to escape the Mongols?

Hong Kong’s MTR renames new station to mark Song dynasty link

But, however you cut it, the government’s cost estimates for large-scale projects to sell to the public have become a joke, much like its budget deficit “warnings”.

Next time, whatever figures officials use to justify new construction projects, remember to add a billion here and a billion there to the numbers. It’s all about fake estimates but real money.