All quiet on the Changi eastern front

Changi Expansion

It’s all fine and dandy then

When plans for the Cross Island Line were announced earlier this year, environmentalists — being environmentalists — went up in arms over a track alignment that looks like it will cut through under the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. The Nature Society was quick to register its concerns, and a few months later put out a paper to propose an alternative route that cuts around the reserve, not through it. There was also a protest at Hong Lim Park where an “eco-artist” and her supporters warned of the environmental impact.

And all this before the Land Transport Authority has even decided on the actual alignment, which it said will only be after soil investigations, feasibility studies and consultation with environmental groups. After all, it is just a master plan with completion not due until 2030. Nothing concrete for now.

Perhaps, like the Population White Paper also targeted for 2030, these environmentalists know that once the government decides on something, it will follow through with it. Practical and economic interest typically come before environmental considerations or political appeasement, as we saw with Bukit Brown. Indeed, the Cross Island Line could prove to be our very own John Galt Line, the railway track in the capitalist-porn novel Atlas Shrugged that industrialist heroes Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden forced through in building despite denouncement from wider society.

As September comes around, Singapore will be welcoming the Formula One race to its shores once again. This is an event that has also seen its fair share of detractors. There was a spate of letters to the press warning of the carbon footprint back in 2007, a year before the inaugural hosting. When the contract was renewed last year for a further five years, a couple of letters came out in the papers again voicing disapproval.

It is thus clear that there are people and green groups in Singapore who care enough about the environment to speak out against eco-unfriendly government actions. This is what leaves me puzzled. Since the National Day Rally, the mainstream papers have carried various features with grandiose diagrams of the expansion plans of Changi Airport. The immediate plan, which is pretty much set in stone, is to open up the third runway by around 2020 to handle up to 135 million passengers a year, with further plans to build a fourth after that. Now, why are the environmentalists silent on this?

For the Cross Island Line, it will at least help to cut short travelling time for the benefit of Singaporeans. (The Nature Society said that their alternative plan will only add four minutes to travelling, but this will add up to tens of thousands of man-hours when multiplied by the number of passengers, trips, and years the line will be in service.) For F1, it is limited to just a few days of racing each year. Airport expansion, on the other hand, is not because we are running out of capacity but due to competition from other cities. While I’m not an expert in this area, I would imagine the environmental impact on a third runway to be much higher than the other two cases.

If we look at Heathrow Airport, which also has plans for a third runway, this contrast in public reaction couldn’t have been greater. In fact, London has been debating over it for ten years now due to widespread opposition from environmentalists, politicians and residents living near the airport. There was even an MIT study that warned of a significant increase in early deaths from pollution that will result from a third runway. Similar concerns have also been voiced in Hong Kong and, in response, its Airport Authority is conducting an assessment on the environmental impact.

While personally I am neutral on the issue of Changi, just as I am with the Cross Island Line, I find it strange that there is much publicity on the merits of expanding our airport but an absence of discussion thus far on any possible negative impact. Even most of the complaints online have centred on Project Jewel rather than the new runways. There appears to be general acceptance that this is something we must do as an air-hub to keep up with regional competitors.

Is Changi Airport so much our pride and joy that even the environmentalists accept its expansion without question? Or are they waiting for someone to start the bandwagon rolling before jumping on?