Thailand’s plans to borrow $69.5 billion for transport projects face challenge in court

BANGKOK – Thailand’s plans to plow $69.5 billion into building high-speed train lines and other transport infrastructure are in limbo after the main opposition party launched a legal challenge to the spending.

The Democrat Party’s move came after the Senate voted Wednesday 63-13 in favour of a financing plan which allows the Finance Ministry to borrow 2.2 trillion baht in Thailand and overseas without going through the annual government budget. The party submitted a petition to the constitutional Court, asking it to rule if the bill violated the country’s charter.

The 7-year infrastructure spending plan is expected to be a significant contributor to economic growth. Delays could add to problems for the government, which suffered a setback this month after street protests derailed amnesty legislation that would have paved the way for Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup, to return to Thailand. The current government is led by Thaksin’s younger sister.

Opposition lawmaker Churin Laksanawisit said final endorsement of the bill, which includes submitting it to Thailand’s king, would have to be put on hold until the constitutional Court rules on its validity.

The projects will include four high-speed rail lines that will connect Bangkok with Chiang Mai in the north, the Laotian border, Thailand’s industrialized eastern seaboard and Malaysia.

Other projects include building more ports, expanding the mass transit network in the capital and surrounding provinces and building dual-track rail lines that the government has said could triple the number of rail services per day from the current 90. It is part of a push to switch hauling of goods from roads to rail to lower fuel consumption, logistics costs and delivery times.

The government has said the projects, to be completed by 2020, will boost Thailand’s economic growth, create jobs and improve investor confidence.

Critics say the bill would raise public debt to unacceptably high levels and will reduce transparency by bypassing the annual budget process.

The opposition party called for the bill to include descriptions of the projects and for the loans to be part of the regular government budget.