Why the SRS Penang transport proposal should be reviewed

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In the first of a three-part series, Lim Mah Hui and Ahmad Hilmy explain why the mega proposal should be reviewed.

Now is a good time for the Penang state government and the public to revisit and review the SRS Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) for four reasons.

First, SRS, the project proponent is having difficulty fulfilling the first and foremost condition of the agreement, ie to provide a bridge loan to kickstart the project. Volume 1 page 1-06 of the SRS proposal states that the PTMP project “does NOT require the state (or the federal government) to raise or guarantee any loans to finance the delivery of the TMP” (emphasis from original text). All funds will come from reclamation of the three islands. SRS will provide an initial bridging loan of RM1.3bn, which will be paid by the state including interest. Since this condition is not fulfilled, does the agreement still hold?

Second, instead of reviewing the scale of the project, the state government is reaching out to multiple sources to fund the PTMP. It initially asked the federal government for a couple of billion ringgit and, in the latest round, for RM10bn. It has even approached a Japanese government agency for funding.

Third, certain projects are no longer relevant due to the change of government at the federal level. In particular, the cross-channel tunnel was proposed because it was argued that the BN-led federal government would not approve a third bridge. This is no longer relevant. Conversely, improvement of the ferry link that was under BN’s control should now be resuscitated.

Finally, one should not “over-plan” with rapid changes in technology. The Autonomous Rail Transit (ART), or the trackless tram, did not exist when the PTMP was conceived. This technology was invented and introduced in China two years ago. Hailed as a transformative technology, it can do what trams and LRTs do but better, cheaper and faster. Qatar will be the first country outside China to adopt it in time for the 2022 World Cup.

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In this three-part series, we will ask the following questions:

  1. Does Penang need to spend RM46bn for the SRS PTMP?
  2. Will it solve Penang’s transport woes?
  3. Are there better, cheaper and faster alternatives?

Table 1.1 summarises the major components of the RM46bn PTMP project.

Source: SRS Vol. II B, Book 1 of 1; Public Accounts Committee Report

Note: The RM45bn does not include the monorail line from Butterworth to Bukit Mertajam shown on the SRS map. The cost estimates of PIL1 and LRT as reported in recent press articles keep escalating. The PDP fees and reimbursements make up 10% of the total RM45bn.

Phase 1 under the SRS proposal will take eight years to complete. It is essentially made up of two gargantuan infrastructure projects: the Pan Island Link 1 (PIL1) and the LRT. The other road projects come under the Zenith package in the Halcrow Plan. This consists of one cross-channel tunnel and three major highways (the North Coast Paired Road, the highway from Ayer Itam to LCE Expressway, and the Gurney Road to LCE Expressway).

We argue that all these projects can either be cancelled or replaced with better, cheaper and faster alternatives.

1. Cancel PIL 1 = cost savings RM9bn

There is indisputable scientific evidence that simply building more roads does not solve traffic congestion. It may alleviate congestion for a short period but it will eventually encourage more traffic, leading us back to square one.

The SRS consultants who did the detailed environmental impact assessment for PIL admitted this fact. In Chapter 8 p.8-79, it says: by 2030, “During the AM peak hour, PIL1 is expected capture between 5,700 PCUs/hr and 7,800 PCUs/hr, which represents a capture rate of between 19% and 23%. In the PM peak PIL1 is expected to capture between 7,500 PCUs/hr and 8,000 PCUs/hr, representing between 18% and 29% capture rates.”

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In plain English, PIL1 will experience traffic congestion six years after it is completed! So, we take seven years to build the highway, causing major disruptions and misery, and “enjoy” fast travel for six years. Then we are back to square one.

Chow Kon Yeow and Lim Kit Siang recognised this fact. In 2002, both were dead against the Penang Outer Ring Road (Porr), which was the precursor of today’s PIL1. Porr’s road alignment is the same, except PIL1 is longer and extends further south while Porr veers east to the LCE Expressway, and this route is traced by the upcoming Zenith Package 2 highway.

Quote from Chow on 29 May 2002 at a DAP function:

  • “If the findings of the Halcrow Report are true, Dr Koh would be irresponsible in pushing the PORR through as this would not be a long-term solution to the traffic congestion on the island.”

Quote from Lim, cited in Malaysiakini on 28 May 2002:

  • “The nightmare of the Penang traffic congestion is likely to be back to square one, not in eight years but probably less than five years, after the completion of PORR…
  • What Penang needs is an efficient public transport system based on sustainable transport policy, as PORR is not a medium-term let alone long-term solution to the traffic congestion nightmare on the island.”

2. Cancel cross-channel tunnel = cost savings RM3.5bn

In the first place, building a cross-channel tunnel is not a priority.

Table 1.2 shows the traffic volume in Penang during morning and evening peak hours. Of the 250,000 person trips made during peak hours, only 7% are cross-channel traffic. Traffic within Penang island is the highest at 43% and within the mainland at 35%.

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It is clear that the authors of the Halcrow Report do not consider building the cross-channel tunnel a priority in addressing Penang’s transportation. Nevertheless, they included it in their report for reasons that were not made public, leading to concerns raised by the public as to whether they were under pressure to do so.

Table 1.2

Source: Halcrow: PTMP Strategy. Concise Version: p. 3

The first Penang bridge has three lanes in each direction. A simple solution that will cost next to nothing is to create an additional contraflow lane in the direction of the island during morning peak hours, ie having four lanes into the island and two lanes into the mainland. This contraflow lane should be a bus-high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane, ie to be shared between buses and high occupancy vehicles (cars with three or more passengers). The reverse happens during evening peak hours. This concept of bus-HOV lane can be used effectively to solve Penang’s cross-channel traffic jam. Enforcement is simple with the installation of dashcams at the back of each bus. Stiff and deterrent fines like RM1,000 should keep offenders away.

Dr Lim Mah Hui is a former professor and international banker and was on the Penang Island City Council for six years.

Ahmad Hilmy is a transport engineer and associate professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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