Slow down on light rail

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Slow down on light rail

The Seoul Metropolitan Government announced an ambitious plan to build nine new light railway tracks and to extend subway line No. 9 by 2025, at an estimated cost of 8.5 trillion won ($7.58 billion). The project will try to get 1.17 trillion won from the state, 3.05 trillion won from the city, 3.95 trillion won from the private sector, and 376.6 billion won from developers.

The idea of upgrading the light railway system was considered under former Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon in 2008, but incumbent mayor Park Won-soon put the plan on hold, except for the Ui-Sinseol line, so it could undergo another review. The idea gained traction again on complaints from city council and local districts about traffic congestion.

The costly plan, however, does not mesh with the liberal mayor’s promise of lightening the city’s debt load by 7 trillion won while in office. He also has been critical of pork-barrel projects. Other cities that built light railways based on rosy business projections are doing poorly.

Seoul may be different as it’s heavily populated and has a high demand for public transit. But the population in the capital has more reasons to decrease than to increase. Fewer people will stay put once decentralization measures progress, such as the creation of the new administrative city in Sejong, the transfer of public enterprises to the provinces and urban development in rural areas. The demand for public transportation will likely decrease in the capital in the future.

The traffic situation in Seoul has also improved greatly since 2008, when the light-rail plan was first proposed. The networking of buses and new subway lines helped ease traffic. People are using public transport more. We need to be sure that all these changes were considered before the decision was made to proceed with the new light-rail lines.

The light railway would be more like a commuter system. It would largely be of use during rush hour and would remain empty for most of the day. If the privately-run business got into trouble, the city government would have to make up for the losses.

Instead of spending huge sums on creating a new rail system, the city should look into other ways to improve existing modes of transport. It should listen to more opinions on the issue from experts and city residents. The city government is already short on funds to finance free childcare and other new welfare programs. It must ask itself if a colossal pork-barrel project is necessary at this stage.

If it deems a light-rail system truly worthwhile, it could consider building just a few of the proposed lines. We demand more discretion from the mayor.
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