For the central government, Phuket was definitely a golden goose. The renowned tourist destination, which during the pre-Covid era pulled in more than 400 billion baht a year for the country, ranked second only to Bangkok in terms of total revenues generated from tourism.
The island had its own path to a bright future, which the government fully acknowledged. Over the past few years, many projects were developed to turn Phuket into a smart city, a cultural hotspot, as well as a hub for nautical sports and education.
The government promised to develop infrastructure, from building a larger and better airport to improving its water-management system to better handling droughts and floods. That said, the project that was most awaited by both locals and investors was the Phuket Light Rail Transit (LRT), also known as the Phuket tram.
The proposal for an urban electric train in Phuket was first floated in 2005 by local politicians, so the news of a new transit mode was met with an island-wide anticipation. Understandably so -- Phuket is conspicuously not served by any mass-transit systems, and residents have been forced to use privately operated songthaew which charge passengers as much as they want.
The Phuket tram was the brainchild of former Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith. In 2017, the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) and the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy Planning (OTP) were ordered to conduct a feasibility study and come up with an investment plan for the project.
A year later, the feasibility study results were unveiled -- Phuket was to get a 58-kilometre tramway with 24 stations, running past 40 schools and thousands of businesses. Construction was to be divided into two phases, with the first 40-km section spanning Phuket International Airport and Chalong Intersection, and the second running from Chalong Intersection to Takua Thung in Phangnga district.
The first phase of the project was estimated to cost 34 billion baht to build, with the costs to be shouldered by both the public and private sector. Authorities were supposed to open the bid for contractors this year, and the project was estimated to take three years to complete.
The project was not without its critics. Those who disagreed questioned the financial feasibility of the scheme, as well as its unclear fare structure. Fares were expected to range between 15-25 baht, but some observers noted that they might go as high as 100-137 baht.
However, the dream of the LRT in Phuket was shot down by current Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob, who has been attempting to revise the project since last year.
Last week, he ordered the SRT and OTP to review the project, suggesting that a smart electric bus system should be built to save 15 billion baht and reduce fares. The alternative proposal is expected to be a bus rapid transit (BRT) system, similar to the one that serves commuters along Bangkok's Rama III Road.
The U-turn was a letdown for residents and investors.
Phuket has become major city, with residents comprising locals and foreigners. As the government and local administration has set a goal to turn it into an international destination, it deserves no less than a modern transport system that is seamless and convenient.
It is not too late for Mr Saksayam to change his mind. Instead of pushing for electric buses, the Transport Ministry should conduct public hearings to gauge people's demands and needs so Phuket can get the modern transport system it deserves.