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HK Magazine Archive

Hong Kong's White Elephants Are Draining Your Money

There’s nothing the government’s better at than spending public funds on huge construction projects of questionable value. Roll up as we count them all down.

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 April, 2016, 10:27am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 5:05pm

The Three-Runway System, Hong Kong International Airport: $141.5 billion

The Dream: A third runway at the airport to meet the capacity for future air traffic growth. 

The Reality: This is a contentious issue that’s already costing considerably more than the original 2011 price tag of $136.2 billion. There’s some debate about whether it will serve its purpose, since the biggest problem is actually a lack of airspace—the skies of the Pearl River Delta are congested, and the Chinese military controls the allocation of mainland airspace. Aviation officials from Hong Kong, Guangdong Shenzhen and Macau have yet to arrive at a solution to these congestion problems, which have caused delays and greater fuel costs, as well as the inability to maximize runway usage. On top of that, the project is set to destroy the habitat of Hong Kong’s endangered Chinese White Dolphins. Among some 250 mitigation measures formulated against this rise is the construction of a marine park near Chek Lap Kok, set to be built after the third runway is completed in 2023. These measures will cost taxpayers even more money… maybe we’ll have to get to that later.

The Critics Say: “The worst part is Hongkongers are forced to pay extra charges at the airport even if they don’t support the project.” Roy Tam, president, Green Sense. 

How We’d Spend It: Feeding all 66 million of the world’s hunger-stricken school-age children for five years and eight months, at $24.8 billion per year.

Northeast New Territories New Development Areas: $120 billion

The Dream: A development project in some of the city’s greener zones which will provide 60,000 new housing units. 

The Reality: Only six percent of the development area will be set aside for much-needed public housing, while the rest will go towards private development. Discussions about the project were mooted at the end of the 20th century, but it wasn’t until 2008 when the government started public consultation on it. In the meantime property developers jumped on the opportunity to purchase land carved out for development—that’s one of the reasons why the price of compensation to indigenous villagers and land developers alone has hit $30 billion.  

The Critics Say: “Kwu Tung villagers are forced to move while golfers get to continue playing in a golf course that’s the size of Tsuen Wan.” Roy Tam, Green Sense. 

How We’d Spend It: Buying up 3,196 private islands like Crawl Caye off the coast of Belize (US$3.95 million).

Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge (Hong Kong Section): $117 billion

The Dream: A series of bridges and tunnels linking up the two SARs and alleviating traffic congestion along the Hong Kong/Shenzhen border, as well as an artifical island providing border-crossing facilities. 

The Reality: The bridge was supposed to be completed by the end of this year, but it’s been pushed back to the end of 2017. That’s due to a combination of issues, such as a one-year delay caused by a judicial review, labor shortages and an unstable supply of construction materials. Such delays prompted the government to ask for an extra $5.46 billion, which was approved by Legco in January. Critics wonder how many years and how much in toll fees it would take to cover costs. The upcoming Shenzhen-Zhongshan Corridor might drastically reduce the usefulness of this bridge altogether. 

The Critics Say: “How much use would such a bridge get from vehicles that serve the mainland Chinese and local manufacturing and re-export industries, which are no longer relevant?” Lee Cheuk-yan, Labour Party lawmaker. 

How We’d Spend It: Buying 26,958 flats in Kowloon (at an average of $4.34 million each)

Guangzhou–Shenzhen–Hong Kong Express Rail Link (Hong Kong Section): $85.3 billion

The Dream: A high-speed, high-capacity train running between Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta. 

The Reality: For one, there’s already a pretty fast train between Hong Kong and Guangzhou. But at the end of last year we also discovered that the original $65 billion price tag put on the high-speed rail link in 2010 didn’t cover costs—a two-year delay due to unstable material supplies, lack of manpower, environmental protection requirements, land reclamation hiccups and problems with height limits resulted in the need for additional funding for the project, which is managed by the MTR Corporation. The additional funding request for $19.6 billion of taxpayer cash was passed by the Legislative Council in March, after months of filibustering—the government insisted that the project had come too far to collapse, and would result in countless job and fiscal losses if funding did not continue. The rail link is expected to be completed in 2018, but another issue remains: A “co-location” system of immigration facilities, which involves stationing mainland authorities in Hong Kong, may be part of the plan. 

The Critics Say: “If Hong Kong settles for co-location, we’re sacrificing the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle. And that isn’t something money can buy.” Lee Cheuk-yan, Labour Party. 

How We’d Spend It: On 312,454 of Tesla’s new Model 3 cars at $273,000 each.

West Kowloon Cultural District: $47.1billion

The Dream: A waterfront arts hub which will put the city’s cultural scene on the world map. 

The Reality: Part of the West Kowloon Cultural District is a temporary construction site for the Express Rail Link, which—on top of surging construction costs—is one of the reasons that the WKCD’s $21.6 billion price tag in 2008 has more than doubled to a “ballpark estimate” of $47.1 billion. What the project does have now is a temporary “nursery park,” originally intended to be a performance and exhibition venue. Features awaiting completion include a Chinese opera center due to open in 2017, the M+ visual arts museum slated for 2019, and a theater complex, which won’t open until 2019. At least we can hold Clockenflap there until everyone gets their ass in gear… 

The Critics Say: “In 1997 we identified the sheer lack of venues for arts and performances, and decided on doubling our capacity by adding 16 new ones. From that summit of excitement we continue to tumble down: All in one location, all with one developer, all with one committee, build a rail station underneath, fail to retain the creatives, going cheap on the budget… What else can go wrong?” Paul Zimmerman, founder/CEO, Designing Hong Kong. 

How We’d Spend It: Picking up 57 houses on the Peak, at $819.1 million each—the world’s most expensive homes by price per square foot.

Shek Kwu Chau Mega-Incinerator: $19.2 billion

The Dream: A solution to our growing waste crisis.

The Reality: A mega-incinerator on an island between Lantau and Cheung Chau isn’t what most people would have in mind when it comes to environmental protection: Think dredging and reclamation, hundreds of tons of toxic ash, and a mega eyesore in an area that was designated for leisure and tourism. The Environmental Protection Department says that the city produces more than 9,000 tons of solid waste every day—which means that even with an incinerator, we’d still have to deal with 5,000 to 6,000 tonnes of waste per day which we’d have to recycle or dump. The EPD seems fine with proposing, assessing and approving its own plans to build the world’s most expensive incinerator. Us? We’re not so sure.

The Critics Say: “The government could have done something to reduce waste at source over the past decade, but they didn’t. Now we have no choice but to go with the plan.” Roy Tam, Green Sense. 

How We’d Spend It: On a one-night package getaway to Phuket worth $2,671… for every single person in Hong Kong.

Kai Tak Cruise Terminal: $8.2 billion 

The Dream: A repurposing of the old airport site into a brand-new cruise terminal able to accommodate the world’s largest cruise ships.

The Reality: Good luck trying to get there: Only one green minibus takes you from Kowloon Bay to the cruise terminal, and be prepared to wait 30 minutes to an hour for it. Local visitor numbers haven’t improved much since the terminal opened in 2013, and while cruise visitor numbers have increased lately, they still fall short of initial expectations. The cruise terminal appears to be no match for Singapore and Shanghai, which are favorites for Southeast and Northeast Asian cruise itineraries. 

The Critics Say: “Poor retail and restaurant businesses are there as expected. The question is: Is the facility worth the substantial investment in terms of capital expenditure, as well as land?” Regina Ip, New People’s Party lawmaker.

How We’d Have Spent It: On 931 Princess 67 superyachts at $8,800,000 each. But where would we dock them?

Public toilet, Sheung Shui Garden No.1: $9.62 million

Target: September 2016 
Good: Comes with a changing room. 
Bad: Still a public toilet.

Lam Tsuen Wishing Square, Tai Po: $52 million

Target: Late 2017
Good: Improved facilities may attract more tourists.
Bad: Netizens think it looks like a knockoff of Tiananmen Square.

Decking of Tai Wai Nullah, Sha Tin: $81.3 million 

Target: Late 2018
Good: Inclusion of soccer pitch could make up for the lack of community facilities in the area.
Bad: May not have changing rooms.

Musical fountain, Kwun Tong promenade: $53.5 million

Target: Q2 2017
Good: It’ll be pretty.
Bad: Costs $1.8 million per year to maintain; is a musical fountain.