This elephant could be white

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This elephant could be white

Another multibillion-dollar infrastructure project — a new international airport in the southeast — has become a political hot potato.

Local governments in the region have floated the idea since late 2006 on the prospect that the capacity at Busan’s Gimhae Airport would reach its limit by 2027. The Roh Moo-hyun administration agreed to give the idea serious consideration and President Lee Myung-bak included the plan in his campaign platform during the 2007 election. The government has narrowed the potential destinations to two areas — Miryang and Gadeok Island — and plans to announce the winning site by the end of March. The construction of a major public transportation facility — estimated to cost around 10 trillion won ($8.9 billion) — has drawn intense competition. Local governments are holding public rallies and politicians from the region are lobbying fiercely.

The government has dragged its feet too long over the airport’s construction, again manifesting a lack of leadership and connection with the public. The government initially planned to name the site by the end of 2009, but put it off for fear of sparking trouble in the regions and their political circles. The project dropped out of the spotlight last year due to the controversy over Sejong City and North Korea’s attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island. The delay only aggravated regional competition over the project. The clamor is now heightened by equally fierce competition by regions who want to be the site of a new science and technology belt.

Some are now questioning the necessity of a new airport. The central and local governments argue it is vital, but critics are quick to cite past catastrophic white elephants. The 1987 presidential campaign promise, the Saemangeum Seawall Project, is the worst example. The manmade Sihwa Lake worsened water pollution. The campaign pledge to create a new administrative municipality was pronounced “unconstitutional” by the Constitutional Court. The functional role of Sejong City is still under debate. Of 14 airports across the nation, 10 run deficits. Airport projects in Gimje and Yecheon were abandoned during construction and airports in Uljin and Yangyang closed due to a lack of demand.

Despite this abysmal track record, the government and politicians have learned little. The government said it plans to conduct a preliminary feasibility study after it designates the site in March — but how can it scrap the plan then? The government should study the project and explain to the public the need for a new airport before it decides where it will be built.
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