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More adventurous than the average bear

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

5 reasons it's okay for the Cross Island Line to cut through our nature reserves

So in the wake of the announcement that Singapore's planned Cross Island Line might cut through a nature reserve, there has been a lot of reaction - virtually all of it negative.

On Tuesday, many people were sharing a particularly irritating article: 12 reasons why you dgaf if the Cross Island Line cuts through our nature reserves | Mothership.SG, sarcastically giving reasons why you might not care about this happening and not want us to spend another $2 billion (and put up with a lot of inconvenience) to divert the line around the nature reserve.

Conveniently, examining many of these flippant dismissals to not divert the line can make a good case for why we indeed shouldn't.

"1. We will save money"

People love to complain about how taxpayers' money is wasted. Why not here?

The cost overruns of the Youth Olympics were less than $300 million and already people were complaining as if Operation Sook Ching Part Deux had just happened.

The whole Marina Coastal Expressway (MCE) cost $4.3 billion and people were shocked and scandalised.

Here, the MRT diversion *alone* may cost $2 billion.

Our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong earns $1.7m a year which many think is exorbitant. This $2 billion could pay his salary. For 1,176 years.

Healthcare spending was $9 billion in 2015's budget. The estimated diversion's cost is more than 20% of that.

Furthermore, money doesn't come from nowhere.

This $2 billion will be money that cannot be used in some other way (e.g. Arts subsidies, healthcare subsidies, housing subsidies, education spending, an increase in public assistance). Or will have to come from increased taxes.

"2. We will still have forests"

According to the Final EIA Executive Summary of the Final Site Investigation Environmental Impact Assessment reports, the impact is concluded to be "Small to Medium magnitude. Thus the significance of residual impacts are mainly Moderate (Moderate to Major), with the possibility of escalating to Major only if the mitigating measures are not observed".

So, it's not like the nature reserve is going to be ruined.

Furthermore, I note that "Bukit Timah Nature Reserve contains the only virgin rainforest in Singapore". So the area the line will cut through isn't even all that significant.

Tellingly, even the graphic from the "Love Our MacRitchie Volunteer Group" (on the original article) labels the affected area "young secondary forest".

Secondary forest is defined as

vegetation which have developed after the destruction of the original 'primary' vegetation

In other words, the area has suffered worse "damage" before and has bounced back in a relatively short time to become the nature paradise that everyone loves so much.

Why can't it do so again?

Especially given that impact of a "Small to Medium magnitude" is not as major as "destruction of the original 'primary' vegetation".

"3. We won’t have to relocate people"

Saying that just because we have seized land from people before doesn't mean that we can seize as much land and affect as many people as we want.

That's like saying that since the Courts sometimes convict innocent people, Justice doesn't matter and we can convict as many innocent people as we want.

Tellingly, many potentially affected people aren't happy that their property is at risk.

It's a good bet that the vast majority of those lobbying for the diversion are not going to be affected by it. It's easy to love nature when you're not being evicted.

"4. We won’t be annoying residents with noisy and dusty construction work"

When both main MRT lines broke down simultaneously, the inconvenience caused to people was temporary (a few hours).

Yet, people were really upset.

Now multiply these few hours to get a few years' worth of trouble and you can appreciate how upset people in the area will be.

Even worse, consider that during the almost seven years of Downtime Line construction, some shops went out of business and many others were badly affected. There is a very real human cost to this which goes beyond mere annoyance.

Meanwhile, the second point (quoting a Today letter writer) seems to use hand waving logic and wishful thinking to conclude that the Environmental Impact Assessment is untrustworthy and/or incomplete.

While a forum letter is no place to lay out a reasoned argument, I strongly doubt she was both willing and able to do a holistic and complete assessment of the potential environmental damage.

The very language of the letter sounds like the author is making an argument from feelz rather than measured consideration.

"5. We will have a faster commute"

Time IS money. And less annoyance. Making snide remarks won't change that point.

In Japan, a delay of as little as a minute is seen as an embarrassment. And this is generally seen as a good thing. So saving 4 minutes is nothing to scoff at.

In 2014 average daily ridership on the MRT was 2.8 million passenger trips. Let's assume only 1% of trips will have 4 minutes added to them and that ridership won't grow by 2030.

That's 7,097 man-days wasted in additional commutes in 2030 (one year) alone.

In primary school we learnt in Chinese class that time was precious and that we shouldn't waste it.

What more 7,097 man-days a year?

The other "reasons" are just excuses to be snarky so I shall end here.

It is notable that from what I observe, opponents of Option 1 (running through the nature reserve) do not seem to show any degree of engagement with or a significant degree of awareness of the Environmental Impact Assessment reports.

To take just one example, the Lesser Mousedeer is more active in the early morning (5-7am) and late afternoon (3-5pm), and works in the reserve will be limited to 8 hours a day from 9am-6pm. So the impact on it (given the restricted area of activity) will be minimised.

Of course, one could come up with reasons as to why these assumptions are unreasonable, or of how the facts given are wrong. And conclude that the Environmental Impact Assessment reports was too optimistic.

Yet, we hear nothing of this kind of objection. It's almost as if environmental advocates were just taking it on faith that there would be catastrophic environmental damage.

The best part of this furore is that it's a good bet that many of these people getting so worked up about the planned line probably won't even visit the nature reserve anyway.

And it's a good bet that virtually everyone will take the MRT line when it's up (and maybe saving 4 minutes) more often than they visit the nature reserve.

It's easy to charge the taxpayer a tidy sum, make other people put up with inconvenience or getting their houses seized and drive others out of business just so that you can have a warm fuzzy feeling about avoiding moderate damage to a small portion of a nature reserve that has suffered worse damage in the past and has since recovered.

But public policy does not (or should not, at any rate) work on warm fuzzy feelings. Or flippant dismissals of very real tradeoffs.

That said, there're many better articles about the diversion, which among other things point out that an MRT line going through a reserve can't serve commuters within it.
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