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Jason Beerman: Do we really need a third runway?

Jason Beerman: Do we really need a third runway?

Public consultation for Hong Kong’s next big infrastructure project is just an empty PR exercise

By Jason Beerman 5 August, 2011

jason beerman hong kong third runway

Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok is a source of public pride for the people of Hong Kong, and rightfully so. It’s an engineering marvel as well as a case study in passenger logistics.

So when the Airport Authority, the government agency in charge of operations, rolled out its Master Plan 2030 on June 2 that espoused the need for expansion either in the form of enhancements to the current dual runway system or the development of a third runway, my initial reaction was, let’s go big. Let’s build a third runway that will make other airports cower.

Let’s cement our airport’s dominance as the world’s preeminent freight airport and one of the world’s busiest airports by passenger volume.

And don’t forget: This is Hong Kong. Of course we’re going to reclaim more land and build another runway. We have skyscrapers perched on mountainsides, our skyline is a who’s who of the world’s most eye-catching buildings, our transit network is damn near perfect and our bridges and tunnels form beautiful arterial webs, stringing plots of land together like constellations. It’s all enough to make a structural engineer weep with joy.

In a moment of exuberance, I logged onto the website that the Airport Authority has set up to solicit feedback during the current consultation period (which ends on September 2) and was about to lodge my preference for the third runway. Then I saw the price tag of HK$136.2 billion (factoring in inflation).

hong kong third runway

Plane-spotters doing their thing at Chek Lap Kok.

The cost of building the current incarnation of Chek Lap Kok and all its associated transport connections was only incrementally more at around HK$150 billion.

Look, I read through the whole of the Master Plan (and if you are a Hong Kong taxpayer, I recommend that you at least read the summary). I even read through the technical report.

I do not doubt that the airport in its current form will eventually be overwhelmed by the steady growth in both passenger and cargo traffic. I understand the opportunity costs of not confronting the need for expansion right now. But it seems that all this work was an exercise in putting the cart before the horse.

Unfortunately, this is a recurring tactic when it comes to large infrastructure projects in Hong Kong. A project idea emerges from behind closed doors with a price tag already attached, a public relations onslaught begins, a public consultation is staged, substantive questions are deflected, and the cement is inevitably poured.

Recent examples of projects that have employed this strategy include the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge project (which has been held up only due to a legal technicality), the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link, Route 10, and Hong Kong Disneyland.

In the case of the third runway, while the plan is admittedly comprehensive (if not completely one-sided), it alludes to several important issues but leaves them unresolved. As a taxpayer who will almost certainly be on the hook for the cost of the project, I find this quite disconcerting.

The public consultation process is merely for show. It resembles the American democratic process: we have one choice, and our sense of enfranchisement is illusory.

Most glaring is the nugget that, based on current financial projections and construction estimates, “we cannot finance either of the options through our internal cash flows and external prudent borrowing capacity.”

The plan goes on to say that depending on what is favored during the consultation period, the Airport Authority would then hash out the financing details.

Really? The question of how the project will be funded is arguably the most important issue at stake here, but it will be shunted aside until the consultation period is over. At that point, the decision will have been made, and the public will have no say over who will foot the bill.

In order for this consultation period to amount to anything more than a farcical semblance of some democratic process, it needs to embody more important decision-making.

Another thing that was alluded to, but not resolved, is the central issue of airspace in the Pearl River Delta (PRD).

There are five airports clustered around the delta, making the airspace in the region one of the most congested in the world. This congestion is compounded by the fact that the Chinese military wields significant control over the allocation of all mainland airspace, limiting routes and imposing altitude stipulations for all entering and exiting air traffic.

This arrangement places a finite limit on flight movements into or out of Chek Lap Kok, regardless of the number of runways, and until this issue is formally addressed and resolved, the necessity for a third runway is rendered moot.

Eva Cheng, Secretary for Transport and Housing, checks out a map of the airport with the proposed third runway.

This congestion will only get worse in the future, as Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport opened a second runway in July and Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport is reportedly planning to add three additional runways to its existing two.

In the technical report, the Airport Authority mentioned matter-of-factly, “to fully realize the potential capacity gain of a Third Runway, the PRD airspace will need to be redesigned.”

Like the casual treatment of the funding options, this key factor is seemingly left to chance, to be dealt with at some unforeseen point in the future.

Perhaps in response to a groundswell of wonder over the necessity of the proposed third runway given the current airspace conditions, Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Authority scrambled in mid-July and announced that it had reached a consensus with authorities in Shenzhen and Macau on altering airspace restrictions.

But alas, no formal arrangement was agreed and no formal solution has been put into place.

In addition, there are further complications since each airport in the region operates distinct air traffic control systems and there is an overall lack of integration. As a result, trying to coordinate air traffic as it passes into adjacent airspace is inefficient and haphazard.

Let’s be honest though. This runway is likely to be built first, and these questions will be answered at some point down the road. The public consultation process is merely for show. Deconstruct it a bit and you realize that it resembles the American democratic process: we have one choice, and our sense of enfranchisement is illusory. So sit back and enjoy the ride.

And sometime in 2018 or so, get ready for the drumbeat that will accompany calls for a fourth runway. Given current growth estimates, the third runway will be at capacity in 2031.

Don’t say that the Airport Authority didn’t warn you — their plan is entitled Master Plan 2030, after all.

Read more: Jason Beerman: Hong Kong third runway project |

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