The recent government decision to go ahead with building the Central-Wan Chai bypass is no surprise. For years, there was considerable discussion about whether the bypass would be a flyover or a tunnel. The next controversy was how the tunnel could be built to reduce reclamation to the absolute minimum, to comply with the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance. The third controversy was over the large tracts of 'temporary' reclamation required. The government claimed that the non-permanent nature would take it outside the ambit of the law but lost the argument in a court case brought by the Society for Protection of the Harbour. The 'temporary' reclamation plans had to be scaled back.
The latest controversy is over whether construction of the Sha Tin-Central rail line will be well co-ordinated with the bypass works to reduce temporary reclamation and disruption. Plans by the Highways Department, which is responsible for both, show that the two tunnels will cross the harbour at the Causeway Bay typhoon shelter. The civic group Designing Hong Kong has asked whether work on the two projects has been planned to minimise reclamation. The group's assessment was that, by treating the two as separate projects, the typhoon shelter reclamation would probably remain in place for nine years, that is, at least four years after the bypass works are completed, but possibly even longer.
The government's response is that the two are separate projects with separate needs: work is ready to proceed on the bypass, but not on the rail link. The latter will not be ready to start for at least 18 months, while the bypass must proceed as soon as possible, according to officials, who claim it is urgently needed to relieve traffic congestion.
Nevertheless, the government says that, by starting work on the bypass now, it has not ruled out the possibility of co-ordinating construction with overlapping timeframes. In a written response, the Highways Department says that 'there is every intention ... to ensure that the two projects are co-ordinated with a view to reducing the need for the total amount of reclamation'.
The Society for Protection of the Harbour and Designing Hong Kong will, no doubt, continue to pay close attention to whether this will be the case; such co-ordinated construction would undoubtedly minimise disruption and save taxpayers' money. It is not easy for community groups to monitor complex engineering works as it requires professional expertise and considerable time and effort. But they are doing a commendable job. While the Highways Department disputes the concern that the Causeway Bay typhoon shelter would be a mess for probably a decade or more, it has not provided a better time frame.
People often comment on how the same road is often dug up more than once by one utility company after another. Here, we have two tunnels built by one department in one area. Minimising disruption should be of interest to the relevant district councillors and legislators because it will have an impact on the community.
The Legislative Council has now approved funding for the bypass. The district councils have a duty to demand updates. Legco approval is still necessary for funding the rail link, so legislators have a special duty to study the plans and ensure the need to reduce reclamation is not forgotten. Good governance cannot be left to the executive authorities alone.
Checks by elected councillors keep the administration honest. It is no different in this particular case. Indeed, professional politicians and political parties need to acquire the expertise to monitor large infrastructure projects if they are to play a successful watchdog role, and not just leave it to civic groups. What types of projects are necessary, how they should be designed and how the work should be carried out to save costs and maximise the overall outcome - including the environmental performance - are all the realm of modern administration and politics.
Christine Loh is CEO of the non-profit think-tank Civic Exchange, chairperson of the Society for Protection of the Harbour and founding member of Designing Hong Kong