Surprise go-ahead for work to begin on HK$60b rail link

In a surprise move, legislators yesterday approved funding to start building a HK$60 billion cross-harbour railway link from Sha Tin to Central.

Despite fierce criticism about the planning and cost of the project, legislators voted 38-4 to approve the spending of HK$7.7 billion for the preliminary works - including expanding Admiralty station and building a new station at Ho Man Tin.

The four opponents were Andrew Cheng Kar-foo, who recently quit the Democratic Party, and Wong Kwok-hing, Wong Kwok-kin and Dr Pan Pey-chyou of the Federation of Trade Unions.

Leung Kwok-hung, of the League of Social Democrats, who did not vote, questioned if it was the right time to build the railway, given the high cost.

The link was first proposed about a decade ago and scheduled for completion in 2008.

But Liberal Party chairwoman Miriam Lau Kin-yee said more delay would only boost costs. 'If the project was built some 10 years ago, it might not have been so costly,' she said.

In 2007, the estimated cost of the cross-harbour link was put at HK$38 billion.

The latest estimate would make the 17-kilometre line almost as expensive as the 26-kilometre, HK$66.9 billion high-speed railway link between Hong Kong and Guangzhou.

Government officials have repeatedly attributed the sharp rise in cost to a surge in the price of construction materials.

Undersecretary for transport and housing Yau Shing-mu said the new railway was worth the money because it could generate an economic benefit of about HK$4.4 billion a year.

At yesterday's committee meeting, some legislators criticised the MTR Corporation's consultancy fee of 16.5 per cent, which would net it about HK$9.9 billion.

Peter Lau Ka-keung, director of highways, told them this was the usual percentage paid and would be spent on design, contract management and site supervision. 'The MTR Corp will not make extra money,' he said.

Legislator Cyd Ho Sau-lan urged the government not to link the consultancy fee with the project cost. 'The price of building materials might have gone up a lot. But the work of the consultant remains more or less the same,' Ho said. 'A consultant does not need to buy building materials to build the project.'

Speaking after the vote, Democratic Party legislator Lee Wing-tat said his party may still refuse to give the full project the go-ahead. 'We have given the government a warning. If it cannot satisfy us when it puts forward the HK$60 billion funding request for the main rail project next year, we may not so easily endorse it,' Lee said.

Meanwhile, the railway debate meant there was no time for the committee to debate the controversial travel subsidy scheme for low earners. The vote was instead postponed until next Friday.

Some 100 people staged a petition outside the Legislative Council demanding committee members block the subsidy scheme to force the government to make more concessions. This week it increased the threshold to cover an extra 106,000 people, making 436,000 people eligible.

Steep incline

The cost of the 17-kilometre line is now estimated at HK$60 billion. In 2007 the cost was estimated at: $38b