By SM Mohamed Idris

CAP strongly opposes Penang undersea tunnel

The Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) would like to reiterate most emphatically its opposition to the latest mega-project proposed by the Penang state government to resolve the state's traffic problem.

The project comprises a 6.5km undersea tunnel from Gurney Drive to Bagan Ajam in Butterworth, a 4.2km Pesiaran Gurney-Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway bypass, a 4.6km Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway-Bandar Baru Air Itam bypass, and a four-lane 12km road linking Tanjung Bungah with Teluk Bahang.

In justifying the construction of the roads, the argument that has been advanced is that they will expand the existing network of roads.

By dispersing the traffic, they will thereby, it is argued, relieve the pressure on the existing roads and thus open up more space for public transport and pedestrian walkways.

The argument is an attractive one, but unfortunately it is misconceived.

Countless studies have proved conclusively that building more roads (or even widening existing roads) is only a short-term solution as the new roads will invariably attract more traffic and soon the roads will be congested again.

In the case of Penang, with 100,000 new vehicles hitting the roads every year, the culmination of such a process will be sooner than anyone can anticipate.

As for the undersea tunnel, it has been suggested that it will further ease the trans-channel traffic.

But this blithely ignores the fact that this will result in more motorised traffic on the island and create more congestion on the island's roads.

The new roads can only afford temporary relief to this situation. What is often overlooked is that the island too has a limited carrying capacity at any given time and no consideration is given to this fact.

Moreover, if the concern is to alleviate the cross-channel traffic, the fact is that the second Penang Bridge is not even operational yet.

Given that its impact on traffic is yet to be seen, one wonders why the chief minister is in such haste to push through the construction of an undersea tunnel which is beset with risks and adverse effects.

The terms under which the project has been agreed to are also controversial. Apart from receiving a 30-year concession period, the developers will also benefit from 110 acres of reclaimed land as payment.

This land will appreciate tremendously in value in the coming years. Penangites will not benefit from this added value but the developers will, many times over their initial cost of construction.

But perhaps the chief minister is right after all to conclude that a third road link will be necessary. After all, who should know better the impact of his own transport policies than the chief minister himself?

In view of the fact that the whole thrust of his policies is directed to prioritising private motorised transport over public transport, it won't be long before congestion begins to build up on the second bridge.

In short, a third road link will be necessary because the chief minister is intent on pursuing policies which will create the very gridlock requiring relief.

There are also other disturbing features about this package of projects. The payoff for the consortium undertaking the project is 110 acres of reclaimed land.

By agreeing to this, the Penang government has given no consideration to the consequences of further land reclamation along Penang's coast even though the adverse consequences of earlier reclamation projects have clearly blighted the island's coastline.

Such a reckless indifference to the environment is shocking, to say the least.

Questions have also been raised about the financial viability of those undertaking the construction. However, more important is the safety of such tunnels.

The 1996 Chunnel fire shows the limits of human technical ingenuity and engineering skill.

The Chunnel - the underwater tunnel beneath the English Channel which links England and France - was regarded as the eighth wonder of the world and had been exhaustively tested for safety, including extensive modelling and full-scale fire tests, before it was opened up to traffic.

Yet when the fire broke out, experts were hard put to explain how the fire occurred.

In Malaysia, there was a reported vehicle fire occurring every month, for 8 consecutive months in 2012.

Such an incident could turn into a national disaster if it happened in the proposed undersea tunnel.

In addition to inherent risk, given the absence of a well-developed culture of safety in our society, is it not a grave risk to embark on such a project?

Moreover, questions have also been raised as to the expertise and experience of those undertaking the project in building undersea tunnels.

While they may well have undoubted expertise and skills in other types of construction, the real question is their expertise in the specific field of undersea tunnels.

While we are mindful of recent statements that the state government is intent on going ahead with the project, we strongly urge them to reconsider the whole issue.

Such a reconsideration must involve a rethinking of the whole basis of the current transport policy which privileges the owners of private motor vehicles at the expense of public transport commuters.

All talk of a "Penang Paradigm" is meaningless without this paradigm shift.


SM MOHAMED IDRIS is president of the Consumers Association of Penang.