Khon Kaen, in the Northeast, is one of the biggest cities in Thailand and, like Bangkok, it suffers from serious traffic congestion problems, but does not have a rail-based mass-transit system. Although these provinces are fully aware of their problems and would desperately like to solve them, constructing a rail transit system requires huge investments and seems beyond their ability.
Under Thailand's highly centralised governing system, even large cities cannot generate enough income from their local tax bases and need to ask for a budget from the government. Indeed, many have asked for funding to construct mass-transit systems. But their voices are not heard by the establishment in the City of Angels.
Tired of waiting for the central government, a community of business people in Khon Kaen struggled to find their own solution. And they came up with the "Khon Kaen Model". The model based on Transit-Oriented Development (TOD), which uses mass transit as the backbone for real estate and city development. If successfully implemented, Khon Kaen will be the first city in Thailand, apart from Bangkok, to have its own rail system.
The backbone of the Khon Kaen urban development plan is the construction of a 26-kilometre light rail transit line to solve traffic congestion and increase the value of real estate along the line. The plan is to generate sufficient income and wealth to cover the cost of constructing and maintaining the rail system. However, the goals of the Khon Kaen people are not only to solve traffic problems and develop real estate, but also to make their city more liveable and their economy more prosperous.
The Khon Kaen business community also has an ambition to master rail technologies so that they can develop more transit lines in the future and even sell such transit projects to other cities. Thus, they chose to develop their system using trams, which are an open system, rather than those used in all Bangkok mass-transit systems. Such closed-system technologies necessitate relying on foreign technologies indefinitely.
Fully aware that Khon Kaen is not a tourist city, the local businessmen made an effort to position the city as a regional hub for meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (Mice), with a proposal to construct an international convention centre. They also plan to establish an inland container depot (ICD) to cut storage and transportation costs for the goods of small- and medium-sized enterprises. All of this will be executed and funded by the private sector.
The Khon Kaen Model sets an example of participatory development in which many sectors take part in the process. It all began when 20 local tycoons, who have known one another well since their school days, each invested 10 million baht to establish the Khon Kaen Think Tank (KKTT) Group in January 2015. The company was set up to be a vehicle to collaborate with Khon Kaen University to develop strategies for urban development. With assistance from the KKTT, five municipalities along the tram line have also founded their own company, the Khon Kaen Transit System Co (KKTS), to implement the model.
Why has the Khon Kaen Model gained such widespread support? The answer is that it all originates from the hometown pride of the Khon Kaen people. From this pride, the belief that they can develop their own city without relying on the central government has arisen.
Moreover, the local tycoons have tried their best to create trust among all the stakeholders involved. For instance, they have intentionally made themselves ineligible to run for political office and they have not cast votes in elections. This is to send a strong signal to local politicians that they have no political ambition.
They also cleverly co-opt losers from the development project by crafting "win-win" strategies. For example, local van drivers, who usually oppose the creation of rail systems in many cities, have been offered the chance to be "feeders" that can make money from transporting passengers to and from tram stations.
The Khon Kaen people have made a significant progress in selling their ideas to many policymakers. However, the remaining major obstacle is political centralisation. Although the light rail system is not funded by the central government, it still requires government approval before the project can take off.
Though far from being perfect, the Khon Kaen Model demonstrates how local people can emerge from the mental block that they are powerless and have to rely on assistance from the central government. The challenge for the central government is to overcome its mental block that it needs to control the lives of all Thai people, even those living far away.
Somkiat Tangkitvanich, PhD, is president of the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.