Will mass transit stay on the rails?
The reported meetings of Caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra with ambassadors representing countries that show an interest in bidding for new mass-transit projects stirred sentiment that the new government, no matter who is to be prime minister, will go ahead with the investment.
But this turned out to be a false belief. As The Nation reported, Thaksin's talks with the ambassadors were to arrange his own meetings with European leaders.
This matches the expectation by several research houses that the Bt550-billion mass-transit development's fate will be that of others included in the grand-scale Bt1.8 trillion mega-projects: they will be put on hold for at least a year due to the requirement of huge investment which should not be approved by a government formed primarily to conduct political reform.
Phatra Securities said in research dated March 1 that given the time it would take to form a government emerging from the April 2 election, the original September deadline for screening of bidders was likely to be delayed, as was the start of the first projects scheduled for the end of this year.
The first sign of the delay was apparent when the Transport Ministry extended the deadline for accepting technical proposals under the programme by one month to May 29 instead of April 28, as it had not yet completed the terms of reference (ToR).
Despite the political turmoil and uncertainty, caretaker Transport Minister Pongsak Ruktapongpisal still assured the public that the investment schedules would be kept intact. Though the ToR have not been completed - they need approval from the new prime minister - he said the rough ideas presented to the ambassadors in January were applicable.
But his latest speech, ahead of the April 2 election, was not convincing.
When UBS Investment Research forecast a cut in Thai gross-domestic-product growth in its March 31 research, it highlighted the delay in the infrastructure investment as a reason.
"In view of the fact that the infrastructure spending could be off the agenda for some time, we are cutting our GDP growth forecast by 0.6 percentage points from 5.4 per cent to 4.8 per cent. Our revised 2006 forecast factors in significant delays in infrastructure spending," the statement said.
Shortly before the election, DBS Group Research also expressed concern that the investment, alongside other key policies, would be delayed.
"We are bracing for another rough year," the research group noted. "Thailand's nascent recovery is being jeopardised by political uncertainties, with the opposition demanding Thaksin's resignation and threatening to boycott the elections. Most end-game scenarios paint a bleak outcome, with a high risk of political paralysis regardless of the election outcome. Delays in infrastructure spending, privatisation and liberalisation, including the US FTA, will be inevitable."
Last week UOB Research said: "Without Thaksin as the PM, it is likely that many of his popular campaigns, including the implementation of the government's Bt1.8-trillion mega-projects within a four-year period (2006-09), will not materialise."
This would affect major contractors like Italian-Thai Development (ITD), Ch Karnchang (CK) and Sino-Thai Engineering (STEC), which expected the mass-transit projects to raise their orders and keep them busy for several years after the massive workload at Suvarnabhumi International Airport comes to an end this year.
Despite Pongsak's insistence, some officials at the Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning Office have leaked some concerns to the press, on condition of anonymity, that the projects would never get off the ground within this year. Most of the concerns focus on the lack of ToR. Without ToR, there is no benchmark to decide who should win the contracts.
Confirming the belief that the investment would be delayed, the office recently issued 500,000 questionnaires to seek public opinion on the starting fares and other aspects of public transportation. Highlighted is an item asking the respondents to prioritise the first five routes that should be developed first. That convinced many in the pessimistic camp that not all 10 routes would get off the ground at once.
Some private construction companies also expressed concern that without the ToR they did not know how to complete the bidding document. Some were amazed by the government's indication that the bidders could also bid to change the routes to ensure that the paths they were running attracted a sufficient number of commuters.
Given the lack of ToR, UOB Research believes it likely that the existing schedule for all contractors to submit the bidding proposals in May and the announcement of winners of the projects in July may have to be postponed.
"This is in line with our expectation that the mass-transit-system project will not occur within two years. The new government will focus mainly on political reforms as agreed by both the government and protesters," it said.
The research company also pointed out that the process was expected to take 15-16 months to complete.
Then the government will dissolve Parliament and call for a fresh general election.
"During this period we do not expect the new government to pay attention to implementing its popular projects, including the mass-transit system," the research paper concluded.
This might dash the hopes of most Bangkok residents, but they should also be glad that Thailand now has more time to prepare itself for the bidding for this huge investment.
Only solid criteria will determine that the development kicks off and does not stumble, as happened with the Hopewell project.