Phuket Opinion – The Light Rail can wait

Construction News
A woman reviews some of the informative material handed out at the Phuket mass transit system public feedback meeting in Phuket Town on Friday (Nov 12). Photo: MRTA

Phuket Opinion – The Light Rail can wait

PHUKET: Officials at the Mass Rapid Transport Authority (MRTA) should put the brakes on moving ahead with the ‘Phuket Mass Transit System’, at least for now, and there are more than a few good reasons why.

Even Phuket officials are not pushing for the project to move head just yet, as they already quite rightly have their sights set on helping to improve the island’s economy, and hence alleviate the financial suffering across the island, as quickly as possible. Multi-billion-baht megaprojects right now can take a seat at the back of the bus.

As pointed out at the legally required public feedback meeting in Phuket Town on Friday, the current plan is to not start construction until 2023, with the aim of completing the project and opening it for service in 2026. Whatever Phuket’s tourism position may be come that time, it is very unlikely that the island will need such a mass transit system by then.

Expert predictions rate Phuket’s tourism industry to recover to healthy levels by end of 2023, but not to pre-COVID levels. Even before the pandemic, the volume of of tourists coming to the island had fallen compared with they heady heydays of mass tourism, mostly from China, when the mass transit system was first proposed. At that time, the vision was to be able to cope with much increased traffic, and diverting it away from Phuket’s busiest, and lately most dangerous, road.

Phuket does need road transport route options, there is no argument against that. The island was developed very quickly with no secondary road system in place. Put simply, drivers could take small roads and backstreets, or the highway down the centre of the island. Any problems with either one saw traffic grind to a halt.

For those who remember, the Phuket Mass Transit System gained favour in Bangkok only after the seven-hour blockade of Thepkrasattri Rd by an angry mob in Mai Khao over the rape of a pregnant woman by twin 17-year-old boys in 2014.

The blockade closed down Thepkrasattri Rd, causing traffic jams 10 kilometres long in both directions, and trapping an estimated 10,000 people in their vehicles, including thousands of tourists who missed their flights. That was deemed to never be able to happen again. The answer: a B35 billion megaproject to build an elevated mass transit rail system.

Yet to move ahead even with public feedback meetings on the current plans for the project right now smacks of poor timing. There is no urgency for such a project in Phuket. Everyone understands the need to rebuild, everyone understands the job creation involved and the benefit such a project will bring to the economy in the long run – and still it can wait.

By the time the contractor starts hiring for construction of the project, much of the island will have recovered through tourism. The B35bn budgeted for the project can be used for much more urgent needs.

Any lazy explanations that the funds have already been dedicated can be ignored. The national government has already redirected billions of baht from non-immediate projects to fund its popular COVID crisis assistance schemes.

Any concerns about recovering the budget later can also be ignored. According to tourism officials’ own figures, before the pandemic Phuket could fund the B35bn required more than 10 times over in a single year, if the tourism income generated actually stayed on the island.

What is more interesting is the financial breakdown of the B35bn budget for the mass transit project, which might provide an insight into the motivation behind getting the project up and running as soon as politely possible.

According to the project description currently posted on the MRTA website, of the B35bn budgeted, B1.499bn is to be used to acquire the land needed and B24.774bn is to pay for the actual construction.

A further B3.514bn is to be spent on installing the electrical system to power the mass transit trams, with B2.921bn to be spent on the rolling stock trams themselves.

Yet a stunning B1.065bn has been set aside for “Construction supervision consultant fees”.

Of note, that amount is not to be used for the ancillary services that will be needed but not yet settled in terms of how much they will cost. All big projects overrun on something, and serious costs turn up unexpected. But that is covered with a further B1.428bn set aside for such needs as their best-guess “Provisional Sum” already included in the budget.

The B1.065bn is solely for overseeing construction and consultancy fees. With a three-year scheduled construction period, that amounts to a shade under B1mn a day, every day, for three years, rain or shine, or even sleeping in on a Sunday.

If that is so, when this project finally starts Phuket will see the largest influx of some of the most talented managers and consultants in the world – or a handful of people involved in this project just won the lottery.