Stuck in the tracks

José I. Duarte

The new Secretary for Public Works has inherited a raft of tough dossiers. The most visible is, possibly, the Light Rail Transit project. The current situation appears, in essence, very simple to sum up: nobody really knows when it will be operational; nobody is really able to put forward a reliable estimate concerning its final cost. The process seems to have reached the point where no-one seems to know exactly what’s going on.
The original date scheduled for the beginning of operations was 2011. By mid-2013, with work already running well behind schedule, the then Secretary declared to the press that no more delays would be tolerated! What that meant was never really clear. The same official reassured us, in 2014, that the government was committed to starting operations as soon as possible and that the Taipa section, at least, would start in 2016. On past form, that is unlikely to happen.
The latest cost estimate (?!) is a multiple of the original budget. The original costing was set at 4.2 billion patacas. This, in turn, was hiked to 7.5 billion patacas in 2009, and 11 billion patacas in 2011. In September 2012, that value had jumped to 14.3 billion patacas. It seems that no update has been made since, suggesting that we have reached the point where no-one dare offer a new estimate.
To put things in due perspective, let us point out that the Commission of Audit has produced three reports on the topic: the first in May 2011; the second in September 2012; and the third in January 2015. Reading the three Commission reports amounts to browsing a catalogue of negligence, ineptitude, ignorance, illegalities or worse. With a modicum of seriousness, the publication of any of them would have meant resignations – voluntary or otherwise – and disciplinary, if not civil or criminal, charges against those responsible for the situation.
Apparently, no responsibilities were ever assigned and no consequences have ensued to anyone. All this saps confidence in public institutions. This does nothing to promote competence and dedication to the res publica; and it creates an environment that favours opportunism and breeds a sense of impunity – a toxic mix as far as proper governance is concerned. It is possibly high time to put an end to this state of affairs.
And now that we are at it, why not settle for a less ambitious Light Rail plan? The usefulness of the existing one was never properly demonstrated, to be sure. Perhaps we should consider dropping, at least, the Macau side of the project. Why not direct most tourists to Hengqin Island and use the rail to move them from there to the casinos, hotels and transportation nodes in Cotai and Taipa? Indemnities to pay for unfulfilled contracts – if any would actually be due under the current circumstances – would probably prove much cheaper than letting this carbuncle fester.