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[Editorial] Don't bulldoze the bill

Rival parties pushing special bill together to build railroad without feasibility study

By Korea Herald

Published : Nov. 21, 2023 - 05:30

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The ruling and opposition parties are together pushing a project worth more than 11 trillion won ($8.54 billion) to build a high-speed rail connecting Daegu to Gwangju without a preliminary feasibility study.

Daegu and Gwangju are southeastern and southwestern metropolitan cities where voters vote predominantly for the conservative People Power Party and the liberal Democratic Party of Korea, respectively.

Hong Ihk-pyo, floor leader of the majority opposition Democratic Party, met with Daegu Mayor Hong Joon-pyo of the ruling People Power Party on Nov. 16 and told the mayor that the party would pass a special bill to construct a Daegu-to-Gwangju high-speed rail link in the National Assembly plenary session next month.

The line is to be called the “Dalbit High-speed Railroad” as it connects Dalgubeol, the ancient name of Daegu, and "bitgoeul," a pure Korean word for “village of light,” which shares the same meaning as Gwangju. The two cities are pushing the project as part of their plan to make a joint bid for the 2038 Asian Games. They also claim that the rail link is needed to facilitate the harmony of residents in the Jeolla and Gyeongsang provinces surrounding Gwangju and Daegu, respectively.

Rep. Yun Jae-ok, floor leader of the People Power Party for a Daegu election district, is chief author of the special legislation which was proposed in August. The bill was co-sponsored by as many as 261 National Assembly members -- 109 from the People Power Party, 148 from the Democratic Party, one Justice Party lawmaker and three independents. It was signed by the highest number of legislators in Korea's constitutional history.

The reason they're pushing the special bill is that it is a way to skip the stage of government consent. Every election season, politicians tend to pledge large pork barrels, but the Ministry of Economy and Finance is supposed to filter out uneconomical ones through preliminary feasibility tests. The project is certain to be eliminated if it undergoes the tests, particularly when it comes to the demand forecast.

The government has been skeptical of the Dalbit high-speed rail plan. Discussions on connecting the two cities by rail began in 1999 but it barely progressed for more than 20 years because of its low economic feasibility.

The Daegu-Gwangju route was included in the railroad network plan of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport in 2021. But it was given a low priority because of its low cost-benefit ratio of 0.483. When the figure exceeds 1, the project is viewed as economically feasible. The ratio for the route was nowhere near close to feasible.

In 2019, a project to build a 198.8-kilometer single-track traditional rail between the two cities was estimated to cost 4.51 trillion won. However, if a double-track high-speed rail is built on a 205-km route under the special bill, the estimated cost swells to 11.29 trillion won. Moreover, the project will likely go over budget after it begins.

An expressway between Daegu and Gwangju opened in 1984 under the pretext of achieving harmony between residents. It was expanded at a cost of more than 2 trillion won in 2015. But its daily traffic reached 22,322 vehicles in 2022, less than half of the national average of expressway traffic, which was 52,116 vehicles.

If there must be a railroad between the two cities, it is economical to build a traditional railway rather than a high-speed one that would cost double. Not much time is saved with the high-speed link, either. A traditional train takes 86 minutes one way, and a high-speed one 84 minutes.

There are not enough potential passengers and the time-saving effect is too small to be able to justify such a costly project. And yet rival parties are pushing for it together in order to gain more votes in the two cities and their surrounding areas. The special bill is certain to be passed considering 261 legislators signed it. No mechanism can stop the legislation, and it would be a massive waste of taxpayer money. A new system is urgently needed to prohibit bypassing a preliminary feasibility test through a special law.