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[Editorial] Unquestioned projects

Waiver of feasibility studies raises pork barrel suspicions, concerns on tax wastage 

The announcement that certain projects have been exempted from preliminary feasibility studies raises suspicions of pork barrel politics and concerns on tax wastage.

The government has approved the waiver of preliminary feasibility studies for 23 regional projects worth 24.1 trillion won ($21.5 billion), mainly those to construct high-speed railways, expressways and an airport.

The projects are necessary for balanced development and the revival of regional economies, says the government.

However, it is questionable if these aims will be achieved in an age when software is becoming more important than hardware. When it comes to employment and economic vitality, pro-business investment incentives could be more effective than infrastructure.

The point of preliminary feasibility studies -- introduced in 1999 for large state projects -- is to check if a project is economically viable beforehand in an effort to prevent the tax money wastage. Therefore, the latest move has overshadowed the original objective.

There would be no reason to oppose a project if it is necessary and economically viable as proven by a cost-benefit analysis. But spending large sums of taxpayer money without calculating gains and losses runs the risk of deteriorating the government’s fiscal health. It amounts to the government’s dereliction of duty.

If problems are caused by the waiver of feasibility studies, the Moon Jae-in government must be held responsible.

Under past administrations, the Democratic Party of Korea had emphasized the importance of such feasibility studies and called for a strengthening of the system.

It had criticized former President Lee Myung-bak’s project to refurbish the four major rivers, labeling it an “evil.” Moon had vowed not to follow in Lee’s footsteps.

The ruling Democratic Party’s attitude has now changed completely, and it has even gone one step further by removing feasibility studies, with general elections about 15 months away. It follows a shameless double standard.

Little wonder, then, that civic groups -- including pro-government ones -- and opposition parties have labeled the projects as pork barrel.

Furthermore, projects were awarded favorably to regions administered by pro-Moon figures.

A case in point is the construction of a high-speed 191.1-kilometer railway from Gimcheon, North Gyeongsang Province, to Geoje, South Gyeongsang Province. It is the costliest among the 23 projects, with a price tag of 4.7 trillion won.

The railway was an election pledge of South Gyeongsang Gov. Kim Kyung-soo, who is close to Moon. Geoje is also Moon’s birthplace. Although the project failed to pass a feasibility study in 2013, it has gotten the go-ahead this time.

Meanwhile, most projects awarded in the Chungcheong provinces connect to Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province.

A feasibility study was exempted for a project of 1.5 trillion won to construct a high-speed railway from Jechoen, North Chungcheong Province, to Cheongju International Airport. Its proposed budget was approved.

The government also approved an 800 billion-won plan to construct an expressway linking Sejong to Cheongju, without reducing its original budget.

Cheongju was an election district for presidential chief of staff Noh Young-min, a Cheongju native elected as a lawmaker three times representing the district.

In addition, a 1 trillion-won Ulsan Metropolitan City project to build a ring road was approved. Ulsan Mayor Song Cheol-ho advises Moon on the nation’s balanced development.

On the other hand, North Gyeongsang Province, whose governor is a former opposition lawmaker, saw its high-priority eastern coast expressway project excluded from the feasibility study waiver.

It is hard to understand why an 800 billion-won project to build an international airport in Saemangeum, North Jeolla Province, was allowed to skip a feasibility study. Most provincial airports are lowly utilized. Furthermore, Muan International Airport in South Jeolla Province is a 1-hour, 20-minute drive from Saemangeum.

In light of the circumstances, investments are likely to overlap, and the duplication of customers and flight routes is inevitable. Passenger utilization of the Muan airport is less than 10 percent, and both airports will be hit hard if a new airport is built in Saemangeum.

Enormous project budgets come from taxes paid by people from their hard-earned money.

If invalid, wasteful projects are not weeded out, consequences such as maintenance or operation costs will be borne by future governments and generations.

The government ought to spend taxpayer money fairly and efficiently. The minimum system to ensure its fiscal health should be maintained.