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Construction continues at the West Kowloon terminus. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Scrap high-speed rail and turn Hong Kong terminus into underground shopping mall, says think tank

The massively over-budget high-speed rail link to Guangzhou should be shelved and the hole in the ground at West Kowloon replaced with a subterranean “commercial city” to avoid it going to waste, a member of an independent lobby group says.

Engineer Albert Lai Kwong-tak of the Professional Commons said the 380,000 sqm construction site for the West Kowloon Terminus was extremely high in value and proposed instead that 60 per cent of the space be turned into an “underground shopping city”.

“The government claims the project would bring economic benefits of HK$78 billion over 50 years but the cost is now HK$85 billion. The project is definitely a loss, not a gain,” he said.

By redoing the planning work and developing the site into a 200,000 sqm retail city charging shops rent of $155 per square foot – the rate MTR currently charges its shops – Lai calculated it could bring about HK$30 billion in revenue per year and at least HK$180 billion over 50 years. The other 40 per cent of space could be used for government or community use.

READ MORE: MTR, Hong Kong government on collision course as cost of Guangzhou rail link soars to HK$85.3 billion

“You can do the maths on which would generate the bigger economic benefits. Hong Kong’s ability to develop a commercial area is certainly greater than its ability to build a high speed rail”.

Lai said there was no choice for the MTR not to halt the works anyway if the dispute between the government and the corporation ended up in court. The best move to avoid wasting anymore money and time would be for the government to take back the land and make use of it. “Its clear the MTR has completely lost control of costs,” he said.

Yesterday, the embattled rail operator blamed new challenges, such as the extra time it needs to build the West Kowloon Terminus entrance building, for having to push back the opening by another year to the third quarter of 2018.

The latest estimate released yesterday also showed the cost of the project had ballooned to HK$85.3 billion, a third above its original budget, which transport minister Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung himself called an “extremely large” increase.

Speaking in a radio interview on Wednesday, Cheung said the government did not hope to see the works on the project stopped.

Cheung said the revised $71.5 billion budget submitted to the government last summer was said to have already factored in all uncertainties. He said the Transport and Housing Bureau was now seeking legal advice on the matter and looking into the MTR’s latest report.

“In the future we will have to discuss with the MTR how to control costs. The government’s perspective is budgets cannot indefinitely be overblown and there must be a cap,” he said.

Plans for a Hong Kong checkpoint to handle both mainland and local immigration have also been mired in legal and constitutional difficulties but Cheung said the government was already discussing with mainland authorities and could not disclose further details. Progress in this area would not affect construction works, he added.

Lawmaker Wu Chi-wai said the public had lost confidence in the government’s ability to control and estimate cost and any further request for funding on the project would not be easily approved by the Legislative Council.