End stupidity fees

The world's most original theme park must surely be a 125-rai stretch of landscaped greenery in Beijing devoted to "clean politics" and the elimination of graft and political wrongdoing from everyday life. The highlight is a statue of a government official looking in a large bronze mirror intended to reflect honesty and good governance. Similar parks with abstract sculptures portraying political honesty and public accountability are being opened in other cities in China. Despite the educational value of such targeted theme parks, they are unlikely to catch on here.

That is because our most expensive and embarrassing project failures usually remain in full view where they can remind present and future generations how easily taxpayer money can be wasted. Commuters who pass the concrete eyesores that are all that is left of the Hopewell project might be surprised at how much they cost. Launched in 1990 and intended to be an elevated highway and rail line from the city centre to Don Mueang airport, the 80 billion baht project was terminated in 1998 when it was less than 13% complete, leaving over 1,000 gaunt and ugly pillars standing idle along the planned route. One of these pillars collapsed and blocked the main rail line in March, underlining the need for an urgent solution.

That seems unlikely because the contract for the project was reviewed, scrapped and revived before being finally abandoned and the legal mess has been bogged down in the courts for years. In 2008 an arbitration panel ruled that the Transport Ministry and State Railway of Thailand had to pay 11.8 billion baht in compensation to the concessionaire. An appeal against this stupidity fee immediately followed and the pillars must stay in place until a final decision is reached. Some foresight, transparency and good governance instead of greed, incompetence and bureaucratic ineptitude could have avoided all this. Unfortunately Hopewell is not the only model that foreign investors study before committing funds to joint ventures.

Launched in the same year as Hopewell, the Klong Dan waste water project in Samut Prakan is another giant infrastructure project that has so far cost taxpayers over 23 billion baht for a non-functioning facility built with the maximum of corruption and minimum of transparency. Residents were intimidated into selling their land and title deeds were doctored to disguise the fact that they included public property. Then the land was sold at a grossly inflated price to the Pollution Control Department in exchange for a contract to build the water treatment plant on it.

Later the department had second thoughts and declared this contract to be invalid. As a former cabinet minister involved in the land purchase jumped bail and fled abroad to escape a 10-year jail sentence for corruption, an arbitration committee of the Civil Court ruled that the department had to pay nearly 9 billion baht in damages to the joint venture consortium originally contracted to undertake the project.

Instead of paying this stupidity fee for the mess resulting from its contract cancellation, the department filed an appeal with the Administrative Court which last week upheld the arbitration panel ruling and ordered the Pollution Control Department to pay the 9 billion baht compensation to the consortium. But any hope taxpayers would finally get their waste water treatment plant that has been shut down for over a decade were dashed this week when the department filed another appeal.

Although these cases have dragged on for over two decades, the buck-passing seems set to continue. With new infrastructure contracts awaiting signature, it is vitally important the government guards against any repeat of such expensive mistakes.