In October 1989, Hong Kong’s then colonial government launched the “Rose Garden Project” to kick-start the economy and restore investor confidence, which was shaken badly by the events in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square four months earlier.
In a pump-priming initiative, Governor David Wilson dusted off old plans and announced a series of infrastructure projects centered on the new Hong Kong International Airport.
The projects were expected to cost HK$200 billion in total, but the final bill eventually came in at only HK$155 billion.
Fast forward two decades and we had another set of infrastructure ventures — this time launched by the SAR government — but which are now caught up in a wholly different situation.
In his 2007-08 policy address, then chief executive Donald Tsang announced 10 major infrastructure projects for the territory’s economic rejuvenation. The projects included expansion of some rail and road links, construction of the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai Bridge, the Kai Tak development plan and the West Kowloon Cultural District project.
In just a few years, the ventures have seen their cost balloon to an uncontrollable level, with 9 out of 10 projects going over-budget and all of them falling behind schedule.
What does this tell about the capability of the SAR government, especially when compared to the achievement of the former colonial regime on the earlier projects?
Now, by the time a third airport runway will be ready, the government would have already spent the total money that was spent on the Rose Garden Project several years ago.
One can, of course, argue that the current projects are more complicated. They needed more consultations, taking more time and costing more money. Also, we live in a different era.
But even cutting some slack, the scale of the mismatch between the original plans and the ground reality is so huge that we are left wondering as to where the administration went wrong. And who is to blame?
Consider three of the top ongoing projects. According to data compiled by Ming Pao, the West Kowloon Cultural District led the pack with an estimated over-budget of 110 percent to HK$44.6 billion.
It was followed by an 89 percent jump in the Kai Tak venture to HK$31.5 billion and a 63 percent surge in the cost of Liantong boundary control point, the sixth cross-border point between Hong Kong and Shenzhen.
These three projects surpassed the international standard in over-spending more than 34 percent, and the verdict is still on for two mega cross-border projects: Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai Bridge and the high-speed rail between Guangzhou and Hong Kong, as well as on two local other rail projects — Shatin-Central link and Island South rail.
One obvious reason for the budget-overshoot is the timetable conflict among the projects. Because of the delay and complexities of the ventures, construction firms are able to charge much more for providing workers and other materials within a specific timeframe.
In other words, construction firms and their consultants are happily reaping a windfall because of the lack of co-ordination within the government.
Lau Ching-kwong, a retired director of the government’s Civic Engineering department, has noted that when Donald Tsang put forward the 10 infrastructure projects in 2007, he did not prioritize the timetable of the projects. This led to each project scrambling concurrently for workers and other resources.
“If you ask the government, they would say they have coordination, but there is obviously room for improvement,” said Lau, pointing out differences in the way officials now deal with matters compared with how top bureaucrats in the colonial era handled things.
The retired bureaucrat noted that former Chief Secretary Anson Chan Fang On-san, who oversaw the Rose Garden initiatives, used to chair the project committees and asked for monthly progress reports.
Now, the city’s current top civil servant, Carrie Lam, seems to be preoccupied with a whole host of issues, rather than focus on the key ventures.
Suppressing the pro-democracy protests and ending the street occupation of the students appears to have taken much of her time recently. Lam chairs the troubled arts and cultural project in West Kowloon, but there is not a lot of progress to show, as in several other projects.
However, all is not lost and Lam may still some have luck on her side, thanks to the continuing slide in commodity prices, which will prevent project costs from rising further. A slowdown in imported inflation from China will also provide some comfort.
What Lam needs now is some breathing space. And also a determination to tell the infrastructure project managers to hold their costs down.
In this respect, she can take definitely a leaf out of the book of her former peer Chan.
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