Feeding the elephants

Our online publication delved a few days ago into the issues surrounding the operation of the Taipa Ferry terminal. It titled, in a somewhat provocative way, and with pun intended, I presume: ‘White elephant in terminal decline?’ 

Opinion by José I. Duarte

Those who have been around long enough will remember. This terminal was one of those projects that went far beyond what we might accept as reasonable both in terms of rising costs and construction delays.  

Some invoked the need to resize it for the massive anticipated influx of people. They would inevitably require a larger terminal. Others suggested that it would allow the decommissioning of the Outer Harbour terminal. The rationale for that was never clearly stated.  

Contrarily, some pointed out that the construction of the HZM Bridge would alter the estimates for future passenger flows. The framework for any forecasts would change significantly, even assuming that the then-existing ones were more than out-of-the-air guesses. 

In the end, the terminal increased to its current size – at multiple times the initial cost and much later than promised. When it opened it was hard not to feel that one might indeed be confronting a white elephant.  

The simple consideration of the amortisation costs should provide us with pause for thought. Let us assume a 20-year amortisation schedule to recover just the cost of the building.  

Future inflation adjustments aside, the ‘depreciation’ cost per passenger alone amounts, on current levels of usage, to a figure of more than 30 patacas. If initially expected passenger flows were reached, such value would stand at less than 1.5 patacas. 

Add maintenance costs and all types of operational costs – personnel, energy bills, security, you name it. We may well be reaching operating figures per passenger that one may expect of international airports, not regional ferry terminals. 

To compound troubles, sea traffic is generally in retreat. The number of visitors arriving by sea is decreasing, with the trend accelerating since the bridge opened. Many Mainland tourist groups used the ferry connection to Macau in their path in and out of the Mainland. They can now move directly to and from Zhuhai. Macau residents, if not encumbered by luggage or travelling with people of limited mobility, will find it more comfortable to move between Macau and Hong Kong International Airport by bus.  

Consequently, the number of ferries connecting Macau to that airport has dwindled noticeably. Two to three connections a day is the current frequency of service. The effects also touch other ferry connections. For people going to Hong Kong Island or Kowloon the ferry is still arguably the most convenient connection. Its frequency, however, has been scaled down. The longstanding standard of ‘one ferry every fifteen minutes’ is no more. Between Sheung Wan and Macau the cycle is now every ‘20-30’ minutes. 

It is difficult not to see in all this a pattern that is recognisable elsewhere. The yet to launch Light Rail is a case in point. Even recently, officials were unable to quote any number at all – let alone a plausible or reliable one – about expected passenger flows. The vast and empty spaces of the HZM Bridge border are another case. They also look like a public infrastructure that arose without apparent connection to plausible levels of usage.  

Nobody was (or is likely to be) invited to answer for these (or other) planning and financial mishaps. No-one seems to feel accountable or responsible for them. As time goes by we may find out that the public budget will be nurturing not one but a herd of white elephants.  

Blessed be the baccarat tables.