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Will Founders’ Memorial station be another white elephant like the one in Buangkok?

The announcement of a new train station along the Thomson-East Cost Line (TEL) to cater for the yet-to-be-built Founders’ Memorial has some property analysts scratching their heads.

On 7 January, The Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced that it will begin works to convert a TEL facility building into the Founders’ Memorial station. Construction has already begun on the facility building at Bay East Garden in the Marina East Area. Property experts are wondering about LTA’s justification behind erecting a station in the area given the lack of development there.

Executive director of ZACD Group Mr Nicholas Mak told TODAY Online that the government would generally only build an MRT station given ‘justifiable population density’ which Marina East Area lacks. The closest residential area to the Founders’ Memorial and new station is in Tanjong Rhu. However, that neighbourhood has its own TEL station slated to open in 2023. So Mr Mak stated his surprise upon hearing that the Founders’ Memorial station is scheduled to be opened in 2025 in tandem with the memorial.

Echoing Mr Mak’s remarks, CEO of International Property Advisor Mr Ku Swee Yong highlighted two other MRT stations that ended up being closed for several years due to insufficient ridership. These are the Woodleigh and Buangkok MRT stations along the North-East Line (NEL). Woodleigh began operations in 2011, eight years after the NEL line was launched in 2003 while Buangkok MRT station only went operational in 2006.

Though originally planned to be opened with the rest of the line, Buangkok ended up being kept closed as SBS Transit said the lack of development in the surrounding area meant that the number of passengers would be too low to cover operating costs. When it was eventually opened in 2006, ridership was only at 1,386 passenger trips per day, less than half of the expected 3,500 passenger trips per day. Displeased with the disuse of the station, one disgruntled resident put up a series of white paper cut-out elephants, implying that the station was nothing but a ‘white elephant’.

So the question is, will this Founders’ Memorial station be another white elephant? To answer this, we would need to know what is the expected traffic flow for the station which would be mainly use to visit the Founders’ Memorial.

Responding to TODAY Online, LTA said that they can’t provide an expected ridership number for the station just yet but noted that once the TEL is fully operational by 2024, they expect about 500,000 daily commuters in the initial years for the entire line.

In June 2016, construction of the building of the facility was awarded to China Railway First Group. Elaborating his concern, Mr Ku said it is “scary that taxpayers are footing the bill” to convert the S$242.4 million facility building. “Now as an afterthought, we are going to change it into a station… How much more cost (will this incur)?”

LTA responded by saying that additional costs will be determined at a later date.

Other property experts were more optimistic, however. Mr Desmond Sim, head of CBRE Research for Singapore and South-east Asia said that the lack of development around the memorial area is not a concern. Pointing to Woodleigh station as an example, he noted that the upcoming Bidadari development will increase the popularity of the station.

Mr Sim said that ‘proper planning and curation of the area’ would be key in order to ensure sustainable ridership. Ridership is expected to be high once the memorial park opens but other activities and events should be curated to continuously attract visitors.

Mr Chris Koh, director of property consultancy Chris International, added that the new station would make the Marina East area accessible now to both tourists and residents.

As for development around the area, he feels that other projects will quickly crop up after the station opens. The Marina East area serves as extension of Gardens by the Bay and features the Marina Bay Golf Course and the lease for the golf course expires in July 2024. Mr Koh thinks that once the government takes back the land, it will be put up for tender immediately, thus encouraging development. Going by a timeline of 3 years for a development to be completed, he expects that the area will be bustling by 2027.

Based on Mr Koh’s timeline, that means people can expect the Founders’ Memorial station to be either closed or see very little use for at least 2 years after construction concludes in 2025. That’s just a minimum estimate. Here’s to hoping that the country isn’t building yet another white elephant.