The proposed third runway should take priority over commercial development at the airport, Airport Authority chairman Marvin Cheung Kin-tung said in his first media interview since a split emerged in the authority's board over plans for a key development site.
The board voted unanimously last week in favour of building a train depot on the site of a temporary golf course, a location some board members had wanted to use purely for a shopping and hotel development. Board member Vincent Lo Hong-sui had threatened to quit the board over the issue but changed his stance after learning that moving the railway depot would delay the third runway by a year.
"According to the Airport Authority Ordinance, the first [purpose] of the authority is to develop the airport. The provision of other facilities is secondary. This says building the airport should always be our main task," Cheung told the South China Morning Post.
He said Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had been kept informed about the authority's discussions. Lo is a Leung supporter.
The row broke out in November when Lo tendered his resignation as chairman of the authority's infrastructural planning committee after the authority's management insisted the depot for the driverless electric train that will service the new runway should be located under the commercial development. Lo argued that the depot would reduce by billions of dollars the value of the 120,000 square metre site between Terminal Two and the AsiaWorld-Expo complex.
The authority said moving the depot closer to the new runway would delay the environmental impact assessment on the controversial runway plan, which is being fought by environmentalists who claim reclamation work will destroy the habitat of the rare Chinese white dolphin.
Watch: Hong Kong's Chinese white dolphins and the airport
All board members, including government officials, accepted the argument that the cost of delaying the runway, work on which is due to begin in 2015, could vastly outweigh the reduction in the value of the commercial plan.
"It's true that [keeping the depot] will discount the land value," Cheung said. "But do you know how much the cost of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge increased after its tender was delayed for a year? With the runway project costing more than HK$130 billion, can you estimate how much more we would have to pay if it was delayed for a year?"
The government had estimated that the 10-month delay in the HK$58 billion bridge project, the result of a judicial review application, had pushed costs up by HK$6.5 billion. The increase was blamed on rising material costs and a higher risk induced by a tighter schedule.
Cheung said moving the depot would delay the new runway by a year, rather than the three to six months suggested by Lo.
And he said he would do all he could to keep Lo on the board and as head of the infrastructure committee. Lo has been tipped as a possible successor to Cheung, whose tenure was extended for 12 months last year. He added the matter was never personal.
"It is a very important matter that requires detailed discussion," he said. "We should not make an impetuous decision … There could be misunderstanding. It is a complicated issue that takes time to understand.
"I have never been opposed to any idea [being raised] or lobbied anyone to support the management. My role is to facilitate the discussion so that both sides of arguments can be heard."