Penang Forum opposes road-based tunnel
The Penang Forum Steering Committee opposes the proposed road-based undersea tunnel and the state government’s emphasis on highway construction over improvements in public transport.
(The tunnel would be the fourth cross-channel link, after the ferries and the first and second Penang bridges.)
There are just too many unanswered questions (see the list below) that throw the viability of this mega project into doubt.
While it is true that public transport comes under the jurisdiction of the federal government, we feel that ‘do-the-wrong-thing’ approach (promoting dependency on private motor vehicles over the long term) is worse than the ‘do-nothing’ approach.
A more sensible and visionary approach would be to come up with a comprehensive plan for sustainable transport while educating the public and pressuring the federal government to realise that change.
It is true that the federal government now has overbearing jurisdiction over public transport but that may not be the case if there is a change of government in the coming general election or the one after that. Jurisdiction over public transport would then be decentralised.
In the meantime, the state government should lay the ground work for integrated sustainable public sustainable transport in the state. The state government can do the following now:
- Kick off a campaign to promote the widespread use of public transport among ordinary commuters. State government leaders could show leadership by example by taking the bus or cycling to work wherever possible.
- Prevent illegal parking (by clamping) to decongest key routes so that bus lanes can be created along certain stretches. A trial run could be carried out at Burma Road, for instance. These bus lanes may also be used by taxis, emergency vehicles and multi-occupancy vehicles.
- Buy RapidPenang season tickets in bulk and distribute them to target groups such as school children, working adults and senior citizens. Alternatively, the state government could provide full or partial reimbursements to those who show proof of purchase of these season tickets.
- Pressure the federal government through petitions and letter-writing campaigns to increase the number of buses in the state and decentralise public transport decision-making.
- Turn the quest for improved public transport in the state into a major general election campaign issue.
- Take public transport to work at least once a week for a start.
Here are our reasons for opposing the tunnel project and our reservations about the highway building spree.
About the vision:
Shouldn’t important public policies be based on evidence and analysis?
Will building more roads solve traffic problems?
Is the public being given an alternative based on sustainable transport?
Are we moving to the 21st century or moving back to the 20th century with the state government’s emphasis on building infrastructure for private motor vehicles?
Does creating dependency on private transport help the poor?
About the process of making public policy
The formal agreement for the (Transport Masterplan) TMP was signed in mid 2011. In the same week, the CM announced the signing of MOUs for four major road projects with Chinese companies. Does it make sense to have the solution before the study has started? Does this not ignore evidenced based analysis and policies?
Concurrent negotiations for the tunnel and highway projects started in 2011 held while the TMP study was underway. Why were awards for the projects given out even before the TMP is finalised and made public? Doesn’t this pre-empt the significance of the report’s recommendations?
TMP calls for a balanced approach to solving transport problems. It suggested short and medium term measures and recommended major road construction as longer term solutions commencing after the short/medium-term measures. Are we putting the cart before the horse by reversing the priorities suggested in the TMP?
Have there been independent feasibility studies, cost benefit analysis, traffic demand simulation etc done for ALL the four projects before they were tendered? Isn’t it standard best practice to conduct such studies BEFORE tender and award, rather than after?
The TMP is based on the assumption that the population will be 2.5m by 2030 and that by this time a sea tunnel may be justified. The Department of Statistics released a population projection last year which projects a population of 1.8 million by 2030. It appears that Halcrow has not done any modelling of the population; they have just assumed historical growth rates will continue, which would suggest that the tunnel will not be required even by 2030.
How is the public expected to provide meaningful feedback when they are hazy about the precise alignment of the routes? All the precise proposed alignments should be displayed to the public for their comments. The state government should practice transparency especially now that the Freedom of Information Act has been passed?
About the tender
If there was an MOU with the China government, how can there be an open tender? Is that why only two bids were received for the tunnel - both involving firms from China? Why were there no other bids from other countries? Because of the earlier MOU? If so, is this really an open tender?
Who are the parties behind the three small local companies that were in the winning tender bid? Has there been an evaluation to look into their track record and expertise? Do these companies have any political connections?
What kind of performance bonds will the local companies give?
Can the state government under the competency, accountability and transparency (CAT) policy make publicly available all the tender documents and acceptances and the decisions of the tender award.
About the reclaimed land
What are the plans for the 110 acres of land; how is the use of this land going to contribute to or solve some of our existing problems. Is it going to add to traffic congestion? Is it going to address shortages in public space and how is it going to influence the property market and the price of housing. How much affordable housing will be built on this land?
Who is going to develop the land - the local companies within the consortium, the China companies or an external developer? If so, who is the developer and the contractors and do they have any political connections?
Can the state government guarantee that there will be a really independent detailed environmental impact assessment for this land? Can it also guarantee that there will be a reliable independentt hydrological study for the entire island and mainland?
What is the market value and gross development value of the reclaimed land? Where exactly is this located?
The financial considerations
Who will pay for the cost of acquisition of private lands that are in the way of the proposed highways?
How was it decided to award 110 acres of reclaimed land to the project proponents along with a 30-year concession for tolls? Was there a financial projection of future revenue for both the reclaimed land and the tunnel toll collection? If so, how many billions in profit is the consortium estimated to make? If there is no financial projection, why not and how was it decided to award them reclaimed land in addition to a 30-year tunnel toll concession?
The TMP puts public transport at a much higher priority than the tunnel. In fact, the TMP consultants diplomatically (given that the tunnel was probably the state government’s idea) suggested that the tunnel would only be something to consider for 2030 and beyond. Why is this being brought forward to “2025-2030” and even earlier now?
If a tunnel or other cross-channel link is necessary, shouldn’t it be a rail link? A cross-channel rail link is more important given the completion of the dual tracking to Butterworth and the future high-speed rail linking Singapore to KL and Penang.
Why is the north coast pair road from Teluk Bahang to Tanjung Bunga a priority now? Is it being driven by property development considerations? According to the TMP (and it’s clear to everybody), the Outer Bypass between Farlim and Tun Lim Expressway should be built first instead of the north coast pair road. Why is the state government putting it the other way round?
Focusing on building roads without addressing the demand for road use will NOT solve the problem. In fact, it might worsen the problem. Have all the highways, tunnels and flyovers in KL and Bangkok solved traffic congestion? If not, why are we going down that path?
There are two sides to the equation of traffic problem: the Supply Side (building more roads) and the Demand Side (the demand for those roads caused by more vehicles). What is being done to tackle the rising demand for motor vehicles and road space?
Do we realise that greenhouse gas emissions from road transport is one of the biggest contributors to global warming? How are more highways and a road-based tunnel compatible with the state government’s slogan of ‘Cleaner, greener Penang’? Shouldn’t we be laying the ground work for sustainable public transport now?
The Penang Forum is a coalition of progressive public-interest civil society groups based in Penang, Malaysia.