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The Parking Lot of the Orient

If the authorities fail to look at more sustainable transport options, the Pearl of the Orient will soon turn into a huge expanse of tar and concrete.

By Anil Netto

It was only on June 1 that Works Minister Samy Vellu declared that the government was determined to push ahead with a RM2.3 billion nothern link: a 9.2 km bridge-tunnel from Bagan Ajam on the mainland to Bagan Jermal on Penang Island. The decision, he said, was “final”.

samy Obviously, not “final” enough. Within days of Samy Vellu’s announcement, all sorts of objections and counter-proposals surfaced - from the state’s traffic chief who was concerned about the traffic implications to politicians with vested interests in having the link near their constituencies.

The head of the Penang Port, for his part, said the port would be implementing a multi-million ringgit dangerous cargo terminal on a 50ha reclaimed site, just beside the proposed area of the northern link. It also had plans to dredge the channel to make it deeper – from the present 11.5 metres to 15 metres. The proposed northern bridge-tunnel would make such dredging work impossible.

Then came murmurs that a southern link might be more suitable. The Penang state government prefers a 20 km southern link - from Hujung Bukit on the mainland to Batu Maung on the Island, arguing that these areas were underdeveloped. So does the Penang Development Corporation, which has land banks in the south that it wants to develop. We are not quite sure how these land banks were acquired, how much was paid for them and whether the sellers received a fair price.

All these reservations and counterproposals make a mockery of the federal government’s feasibility study for the northern option, which - to put it mildly - has been found wanting and lacking in public participation and transparency. What kind of report is this? The firm that prepared the feasibility report also obviousy failed to adequately consult all the relevant parties.

No Environmental Impact Assessment for the either the northern link or the southern link has so far been made public.

So far, the debate in the media has been restricted to the choice of location for a new link - whether a northern link or southern link would be more appropriate. There has been little public discussion on whether the Third Link is really necessary in the first place. (The First Link is the ferry service while the Second Link is the 8.5 km-long Penang Bridge, completed in 1985.)

Samy Vellu’s northern option, about 8 km away from the ferry terminals, was to have been in the form of a 9.2-km bridge-tunnel. It would have started start as a bridging until it reached two artificial islands before mid-channel on either side: these would have been the starting points of a mid-channel 2-km long tunnel that would allow shipping traffic to and from Penang’s ports to pass unhindered.

But this northern link appears to be history as the state government is now gung-ho about a longer southern link: a bridge without any tunnel.

But the lingering question remains: is a new link really necessary? Or is it merely to provide “jobs for the boys” - lucrative construction contracts for favoured firms?

Aliran categorically opposes the Third Link, whether it is in the north or in the south. Penang cannot afford more traffic congestion, which is what another road link to the island will lead to, choking the state’s already narrow, congested streets even further. Already, the vehicle density on Penang’s roads is higher than that of Singapore and Hong Kong.

Officials are talking about Third Link, but so far nobody has mentioned how much the proposed toll rate would be. Come on, give us an indication of the likely toll rate. Why the silence on this?

It is likely that the toll rate will be even more than the astronomical rates imposed for the much shorter Second Link between Johor and Singapore.

More than 15 years after the Penang Bridge was opened, commuters are still paying RM7 in bridge tolls for the ride from the mainland to the island.

The Penang Bridge, which provides easy access to the Bayan Lepas Free Trade Zones and the Penang International Airport, complements the decades-old, neglected but still functional, still popular ferry service in the north linking Butterworth on the mainland to George Town on the island.

Certainly, the Penang Bridge is rapidly reaching its maximum carrying capacity, especially during peak hours. Traffic grinds to a standstill every time there is an accident on the bridge.

But much of the Penang Bridge’s traffic snarls could have been relieved had the ferry service not been neglected since the bridge’s completion in 1985. The frequency of the ferries has fallen sharply since then (see table).

Where have all the ferries gone?

Only five out of six available ferries ply the channel now. When one or two of these ferries break down, commuters are left with only three or four ferries and not surprisingly, long queues of vehicles snake out of the terminals waiting up to an hour before boarding. All this is a far cry from the 11 ferries, including five double-decker vehicular ferries, operating in 1985, when the ferry service was at its peak, just before the Penang Bridge was completed.

In the late 1980s, the old ferry terminal on the mainland serving both passengers and vehicles collapsed and was never rebuilt. That terminal had operated side-by-side with the existing terminal, built in the mid-1970s.

ferry The existing terminal used to cater to the five double-decker vehicular ferries that provided fast, efficient service. When the old terminal collapsed, these vehicular ferries were hastily converted to vehicular-cum-passenger ferries.

The original vehicular-cum-passenger ferries that once docked at the old terminal were gradually discarded, drastically reducing the total number of ferries operational and their overall vehicle-carrying capacity.

At present, cross-channel commuters pay 7-ringgit (1.8 dollars) in toll charges per car - the ferry toll was hiked to make it on par with the Penang Bridge toll - and toll is only collected on the mainland side. Once on the island, commuters can opt for either the Bridge or the ferry for the toll-free ride to the mainland.

More often than not, impatient commuters on both sides give the ferry service a miss - when they see the long queues outside the ferry terminals on both the island and the mainland - and head for the bridge.

Critics allege that the terminal was never rebuilt and the ferry service was scaled down so as to maximise toll collection on the new Penang Bridge. Port authorities, for their part, have argued that the ferries are outdated and running at a loss. It is likely, however, that the losses are due to the ferry terminals not being used to optimum capacity resulting in insufficient gross profits to cover fixed overheads.

Whatever the case, frustrated commuters have deserted the ferry service in droves. Not surprisingly, the rise in traffic on the Penang Bridge has surpassed even the planners’ expectations: the original toll booths proved to be grossly insufficient to cater to the expanding traffic volume and new toll booths had to be added.

Show us the EIA Report

Responding to the concerns over the environmental impact of the proposed Third Link, Works Minister Samy Vellu has said the government would go ahead with the project as it gave priority to commuters’ convenience.

He said the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies had been conducted earlier and the findings were submitted to the Science, Technology and Environment Ministry before the design for the proposed link was drawn up. “There will be no adverse effects to the ecology system as we will take into account many aspects before construction work starts,” he said.

But the state traffic police chief has warned that planned new ring roads on the island would have to be completed first before the new link is completed. This is to cater for an expected surge in car traffic pouring into the island, which is about half the size of Singapore.

Even establishment personalities involved in heritage conservation and the Penang Port have expressed reservations. Heritage activists are concerned about the impact of additional traffic on Penang’s efforts to be listed as world heritage site.

It is a fact that the number of cars will rapidly fill up additional road space provided by the new roads and the proposed Third Link. One wonders if there will be an open tender in the selection of contractors if the Third Link is bulldozed through. In any case, the Third Link’s final cost could well be more than the RM2.3 billion ringgit mentioned in press reports bearing in mind that the Penang Bridge (without any tunnel) cost RM850 million some 20 years ago.

Possible Solutions

Penang doesn’t need another road link for now and all that is needed is a less costly, urgent upgrade of the ferry service to immediately relieve congestion on the Penang Bridge. The authorties recently added two more dedicated vehicular ferries to their fleet, resulting in a dramatic drop in waiting time and shorter queues. Imagine if more such ferries are added! Congestion on the Penang Bridge would immediately vanish. So more ferries (which cost only RM14 million each) and terminals are desperately needed - but the authorities would rather spend billions on a massive new bridge rather than give the Penang Port the RM125 million it says it need to upgrade the ferrry service.

Those with long memories may remember there were pledges to widen the Penang Bridge from two to three lanes each way, as was initially planned. The extra lane could have served as a dedicated buslane.

In the long term, the state should be looking at more sustainable transport modes, including Light Rail Transit systems (on both the island and the mainland) with cross-channel links (high-speed passenger ferries, hovercraft, or even an LRT link). Constructing new ferries and running a vastly expanded ferry service would provide hundeds, even thousands of new jobs in Penang.

Sustainable transport options overland could include electric trams, trolley-buses, light rail trains, and monorails.

Meanwhile, non-motorised transport modes like cycling and walking should be extensively promoted. Pavements and traffic-free zones need to be expanded.

The key to avoiding congestion is an effcient integrated public transport - the approach should be to move people not vehicles. It would be even better if there could be thoughtful accessiblity planning to reduce the need for people to commute long distances for work and leisure.

But before all this can happen, there has to be greater political will and coordination in improving public transport. It is vital to have a state-level public transport body to improve public transport in Penang.

One wonders whether the reluctance to improve public transport has anything to do with the government having one eye on the sales of Proton and Perodua cars, which could be jeopardised if more public transport alternatives are available. The huge road/bridge construction contracts and potentially lucrative toll collection are other factors that are likely to make governments less interested in sustainable transport.

But by failing to plan for affordable sustainable transport options, the government reveals its lack of concern for the quality of the people’s everyday life. Such recklessness may one day come back to haunt us. But it might be too late by then for Penang. “The Pearl of the Orient” would have morphed into “The Parking Lot of the Orient.”

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