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Urban planning

HK$1.7 billion footbridge proposal to be put on hold for public vetting but no plans to drop project, Hong Kong No 2 official says

Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung expresses government willingness to listen to professional groups, but lawmaker says move is only out of respect

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2018, 6:32am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2018, 11:00am

Plans for a HK$1.7 billion (US$217 million) footbridge in Yuen Long, criticised by residents for potentially becoming a white elephant, will be put on hold while the government conducts more public consultation, Hong Kong’s No 2 official has said.

But Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, who is the acting chief executive until the city’s leader, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, returns from a Beijing work trip, stressed on Tuesday there was no intention to drop the project, as the need for the structure was “not debatable”.

The issue centred on differences in the opinions of groups, including five professional architectural, design and surveyor bodies, which questioned if the project would be cost effective.

Cheung said the government would do a more thorough consultation so groups could “reach common ground”, but he did not say if it would amend the proposal.

Officials had submitted a request for HK$1.7 billion to build a 540-metre footbridge over the Yuen Long Town Nullah, saying it would relieve pedestrian congestion in the area. The footbridge, which is aimed at improving residents’ access to mass transport during peak hours, will connect to Long Ping MTR station on the West Rail Line.

District councillors on Tuesday backed the proposal, passing a non-binding motion urging lawmakers to approve the government’s funding application.

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Many councillors said the project was urgently needed by the community.

Last week, the matter was the 10th item on the agenda of the Legislative Council’s Finance Committee, which scrutinises government applications to use taxpayers’ money for projects benefiting the public.

But the footbridge item has now been moved down the list, with others prioritised.

The project has been in the works for nine years, and four years ago, the Hong Kong Institute of Architects and three other professional groups proposed an alternative: to build only two short bridges and widen the rest of the banks at the nullah – or drain channel – at an estimated cost of HK$900 million, about half the cost under the government’s proposal.

On Tuesday, representatives of the same groups met Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan.

An official from the Transport and Housing Bureau earlier explained that the high cost was partly because of the existence of caves under the nullah, with the need to lay foundation work as deep as 100 metres.

The project was approved by Legco’s Public Works Subcommittee in May with backing from pro-establishment lawmakers, and first appeared on the Finance Committee meeting agenda last week.

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Chan Kin-por, who chairs the committee, said it was unlikely the application would be approved before the summer break, if the government continued to give it low priority at Legco.

Despite the willingness to meet professional groups, Chan said it did not mean the government would budge.

Hong Kong does not need costly Yuen Long footbridge to join the list of white elephants

“One of the major concerns of officials is that any changes to the proposal could delay the start of the project by three years,” Chan explained, adding that a move to meet the groups could just be out of respect for the professionals.

He said he hoped the government and professional groups could reach a consensus and recommend a proposal that was cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

The footbridge was a product of a 2009 government scheme to provide pedestrians with a safer walking environment, following the population boom in Yuen Long Town.

According to official statistics, the number of residents grew from 534,192 in 2006 to 610,900 in 2016.

The current proposal to build a footbridge over the nullah was accepted by the district council in 2016, but the construction cost was not known at the time.