Expo-linked building boom sparks concern

SHANGHAI: In the eight years leading up to the World Expo, Shanghai has been a hive of activity, with armies of labourers working flat out to complete a series of massive infrastructure projects.

The city's underground network has more than doubled in size, its second airport has been given an enormous new terminal and integrated rail hub, elevated ring roads now loop the metropolis' eastern fringes, and a high-speed rail network is soon to put Shanghai within an hour's travel of any population centre in the Yangtze River Delta.

The unprecedented build-up of infrastructure was largely timed to coincide with the expo's opening, giving rise to speculation that this is the most expensive world fair in history and also causing concern that the rapid expansion could come at the expense of quality.

A China Central Television news report in February put the total cost of expo-related construction in Shanghai at 400 billion yuan (RM187.9 billion). The report cited unnamed departments as the source of the estimate, but city officials have since been falling over each other to deny rumours of such levels of largesse.

At a press conference last month, permanent deputy mayor Yang Xiong said such speculation was groundless. "I don't know where that 400 billion yuan figure comes from. I suppose if you added up all the various infrastructure projects in the city, you would get a large figure," he said. "But these projects are not being done specifically for the expo. These are essential projects to upgrade the city.

"Shanghai has a population of some 20 million people. In terms of area, it is bigger than London or New York. It is a very large and complicated city to run. Even if there was no expo, we would still need to extend the metro, build roads and construct the Hongqiao International Airport extension."

He said the only direct investment for the expo was 18 billion yuan to build the site, plus a further 10.6 billion yuan in operating revenue.

Official figures show that the city's infrastructural investments dwarf those spending figures.

From 2002 to 2006 -- the four years after the city won the rights to host the expo and the latest period for which data is available -- 438 billion yuan was spent on urban projects.

Unofficial estimates suggest the amount invested in the years since could be as much as 50% higher. The results of that investment are instantly visible, nowhere more so than the extended metro network. When lines 10 and 13 -- the 11th and 12th to open -- began operating last month it pushed the city's total length of underground rail lines past 400km. With 429km of lines now operational, and 80 more to come in the next two years, the Shanghai Metro is the world's fastest growing and soon to become the most extensive.

To put that into perspective, five of those 12 lines opened in the past six months. At the beginning of last year, less than 200km of track was operational. Nearly five million passengers now ride the system's trains every day, and even though it cuts the over-reliance on taxis, they still account for a quarter of all journeys.

But that rapid expansion has come at a price.

A government insider close to the infrastructural build-up scheme said the race to complete the transport network had been linked to the opening of the expo, and that had caused some compromises in quality. "It would have been better to extend the metro network gradually," he said. "That way we could have done things more efficiently and implemented a single, integrated system. Unfortunately, the time frame for the upgrade did not allow us that luxury.

"There are only a certain number of companies building underground carriages and they are all straining to meet the demand. Shanghai isn't the only city extending its network, as there are several other cities doing the same just in the Yangtze River Delta. All the cities are racing to build metro networks.

"We have had to source from whichever companies have been able to meet part of our demand at any given time. But the rail systems they use are different from one another. The trains are different sizes and can't be switched from line to line. What's more, the engineers have to be trained differently for each system, so we can't easily move staff from one team to another."

He said the expo's site in the heart of the city -- unlike most modern expos, which have been located in the outskirts -- meant visitors needed to be ferried on public transport.

With up to 600,000 visitors expected on the busiest days, there was simply no way the road network could cope if they all arrived by private car. "Expanding the underground was the only way to get that many people into the site safely," he said. – South China Morning Post

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