Concerned over high-speed train projects.
Several experts have called on the government to enhance the credibility of feasibility studies and balance the decision-making power of projects listed under the government’s 2-trillion-baht borrowing bill.
Of the total amount, 80% will go to the rail system, with the remainder allocated to upgrading seaports, roads and customs checkpoints.
They were particularly concerned about the planned high-speed train projects which demand 900 billion baht, expressing doubts about a sufficient number of commuters and worries about the subsidy burden that the government might need to shoulder.
The Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) cautiously agreed with endorsed borrowing outside the budget, saying the process would bypass the rigid rules of the normal budgeting process that could unnecessarily slow the budget disbursement.
But it called for an amendment to the bills to give parliament more power to screen spending, list more details of the projects and the feasibility studies to be undertaken by neutral agencies with audits afterwards.
The TDRI also asked the government to undertake advanced budgetary planning over the next several years to show its planned revenue increases and opportunity costs of other public spending derived from the investment.
Somchai Jitsuchon, a senior researcher who is a member of parliament’s standing committee screening the bill, said the government had commenced feasibility studies for only one of the four planned high-speed train routes. The government should not regard the high-speed train as a kind of public service entitled to fiscal subsidies.
He said the feasibility of the projects and fiscal stability would be particularly important considering an additional 2 trillion baht is required to make the transportation network fully integrated and accessible to all.
Under the existing bill, the government has full authority to transfer investment sums from one project to another if they belong to the same strategy.
“The bill is similar to a blank cheque to a certain extent. And parliament has only one opportunity to review it in seven years. But the bill gives confidence that investment can proceed without disruption,” he said.
Sumet Ongkittikul, another TDRI researcher, said that the 2-trillion-baht borrowing bill would fail to comprehensively upgrade the country’ rail sector as it did not address financing the State Railway of Thailand’s procuring train engines. Moreover, there is no plan to create a clear organisational structure of the country’s rail system.
He said the government should launch an audit to assess the project’s worthiness after construction.
Nitinai Sirismatthakarn, an independent economist, said there is a shortfall in the government’s disclosure of the investment projects.
“There are many parameters for a feasibility of the projects and many ways to measure it. We hope government agencies undertake it professionally and with good transparency. And there must be an audit of the feasibility,” he said.
First published in Bangkok Post, 19 April 2013.