Light rail, heavy cost

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Light rail, heavy cost

The folly of constructing a light-rail transit system was obvious to the citizens of Goyang, Gyeonggi. And therein lies a cautionary tale.

The city on the northern outskirts of Seoul very much wanted to build a light-rail transit system, just like the Yongin city government did. The Goyang city government predicted that about 104,000 passengers would use the system every day to commute between the prospering city and Seoul.

Similarly, Yongin’s city government anticipated the number of passengers would reach 140,000 a day when it was planning its project. The system was built and scheduled to open last year, but has remained frozen because the new mayor, who objected to the project, says there are construction flaws.

The citizens of Goyang, however, were more proactive. They rolled up their sleeves to examine the project closely, which involved studying the number of passengers it would attract and the environmental impact, worried that their tax dollars were going to be squandered.

The study by the Goyang citizens revealed that only 10,000 people would use the system, less than a tenth of the government’s estimate. They could have shared the disastrous fate of Yongin: instead of 140,000 passengers per day, its rail system will probably be used by 30,000 and possibly only by 10,000.

The Goyang citizens realized they had to protect their tax money. Almost 20,000 households joined a movement to challenge the project. This led to the city government reviewing its feasibility. As it turned out, the city government realized it would have to pay a total of 201.1 billion won for the system.

So the project died. Citizens’ power succeeded in thwarting an unrealistic infrastructure plan before it took off.

Many local governments are still pushing ahead with various projects guaranteed to be unprofitable at the expense of taxpayers’ money, largely to flaunt the achievements of their mayors or governors. A typical example is the construction of glitzy convention centers around the country, which will eventually dry up local governments’ coffers.

To avert such infrastructure follies, citizens should keep their eyes open and realize they have the power to prevent their governments from wasting their tax money.

It is a citizen’s privilege - and also his or her duty - to check if their money is spent wisely or not. Close monitoring is the first step towards a true grassroots democracy.
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